I have huge respect for filmmakers who make a statement about the world – or even want to change the world – by using metaphors. District 9 is a South-African film about apartheid. Millions have seen it all over the world … and enjoyed it.
You may argue that Blomkamp hasn’t changed the world with his film but I disagree. By watching the story through the POV of Wikus, we go through the liberating experience of seeing our hero transform. At the beginning of the movie, Wikus is racist or at best an ignorant fool. From the mid point he will gradually transform and show empathy for the aliens as he slowly becomes one.
Another reason to be awe-inspired by this movie is the fact that it was adapted from a short film.Writer-director Neill Blomkamp remade his short film Alive in Joburg and started a trend of filmmakers launching a concept via a short film, hoping to do a deal in Hollywood. So far, not many have pulled it off. As a matter of fact, I don’t know of any film in the two years since District 9.
When you adapt a short film into a feature, you pretty much have to make up the entire story from scratch. The only other instance of a successful feature based on a short film I know of is Twelve Monkeys. Do you know of others, please let us know in the comments.
IMDb lists Sharlto Copley (Wikus) as playing an alien in the upcoming Men In Black III.
David James (Koobus) had a part in the South-African series Binnelanders.
So how did District 9 writers Blomkamp and Teri Tatchell structure their story? Let’s have a look.
PROLOGUE – Wikus: archive footage & Interviews with entourage (10mins)
00:00 Tristar and QED International Leaders
01:00 Introduction by Wikus van de Merwe, at the MNU Alien Affairs head office.
01:30 Report on the arrival of the aliens and setting up of District 9.
06:00 Controversial plans by MNU to relocate the aliens to a new settlement.
07:00 Wikus appointed Field Officer to take command of the operation.
07:30 Tania, Wikus’ wife, tells of investigation launched against him.
08:00 Interviewees speak about Wikus in past tense. What happened? Is he dead?
09:00 Wikus challenges ‘the cowboys’ over too much ammunition.
This prologue immediately gives the film a fresh, quirky tone. Blomkamp uses hyper-realistic news footage and shows the space ship and aliens in a completely matter-of-fact way, much like the original short film. This works very effectively in suspending disbelief and setting up the world of the story.
It also creates tremendous mystery around the figure of Wikus. Is he dead or alive? He’s clearly racist, yet naive and well-meaning. Is he going to be our hero? Towards the end of the sequence, our empathy grows when Wikus finds himself in conflict with the war-mongering Koobus.
Why would we call this a prologue? Because we haven’t fully settled for any particular hero yet and all exposition refers to events in the past or events that are to be shown later. There is no story ‘happening in the now’.
Sequence A: Violent relocation of aliens for weapons. (10mins)
10:00 Start of operation. Eviction notices to be served, backed up by military.
13:00 Wikus and military convoy enter District 9.
15:00 Wikus displays knowledge about the aliens and negotiating skills. Tries to avoid use of arms.
16:30 Nigerian gangs in District 9
18:00 Alien eggs found and destroyed. Wikus has little concern for the alien life.
19:30 (pov) MNU is into weapons research and aliens have superior weapons.
20:00 Alien executed from the air, “had a spade”.
Confusion about our hero continues: his ethics are debatable and he doesn’t look very smart. More antagonism arises with the introduction of the Nigerian gangs. Key strengths why we are interested in Wikus: he is excited, energetic and totally committed to his task, even though it may be dangerous (and stupid). Film audiences will always prefer a not-so-smart but gung-ho character (see how many comedic characters you can come up with) over a genius who doesn’t act.
Note that this entire first sequence is told from Wikus’ point of view (POV), except the brief interview segment about MNU’s motivations. The story doesn’t go into any other POV during the dramatic scenes.
Sequence B: The Fluid. (10mins)
20:30 (pov aliens) Aliens looking for fluid.
21:30 (pov aliens) 20 Years of work collecting the fluid, finally plan is ready.
22:00 (pov aliens) Cylinder must be protected, kept from MNU.
22:30 Wikus searches their shack.
23:30 Chemical lab found. Wikus finds cylinder.
24:00 Fluid in cylinder sprays on Wikus’ face. He takes cylinder in for inspection.
25:00 Weapons found, Wikus calls for reinforcement.
26:00 Wikus gloats at alien. The alien attacks Wikus, is being shot from chopper.
27:30 Wikus refuses medical treatment.
28:00 Christopher. Sharper. Refuses to sign paper.
30:00 Wikus threatens to take son away.
30:30 Wikus sick. Bleeds black liquid.
For the first time we move into the POV of the aliens Christopher and his son. See how this happens right at the beginning of a new sequence, after a climax. This way it interferes minimally with the building of tension. Look at other successful movies and you’ll often find that a first shift of POV happens at the beginning of a sequence, where the tension is relatively low. This shift of POV is essential to show us the aliens’ secret, setting up a strong conflict between their aliens’ goal (to hide the fluid in the cylinder) and that of Wikus’ (to turn everything upside down to find weapons).
Note how during the remainder of this sequence we stay in the POV of Wikus, yet meanwhile we do feel empathy for the aliens. The sequence climaxes with Christopher refusing to sign and Wikus being infected by the black fluid.
Structurally, this end of Act One is interesting: some people may empathize more with the aliens than with Wikus, because their goal is clearer, harder to achieve and at the same time simpler, more primal. The aliens want to return home and they have invested a lot in it. Wikus still only wants to finish his job, although the elements have been set up to make this harder and harder.
Sequence C: Wikus’ deterioration, capture and escape. (12mins)
33:00 (pov aliens) Christopher can’t find the cylinder.
34:00 (pov) Nigerians kill and eat aliens to cure diseases.
35:00 Surprise party for Wikus at home.
35:30 Piet not happy: too many aliens died today. Wikus throws up again.
36:30 Wikus to hospital. He has grown an alien arm.
38:00 Wikus taken to MNU bio-labs: alien DNA, now subject of experiments.
39:00 “What are they doing to these prawns?” Confused and shocked.
39:30 Wikus used in weapons testing, able to shoot the alien weapons.
41:30 Wikus forced to shoot a captured alien.
42:00 (pov MNU) Body is to be harvested, worth billions.
43:00 (pov Tania) Piet lies to wife Tania and tries to convince her to forget about him.
44:00 They try to cut open his chest but Wikus escapes from the building.
Wikus, previously the hero of the relocation operation, now becomes a fugitive. He will increasingly empathize with the aliens as he has started his transformation to become one. In terms of character goals, the aliens’ objective is still clearer than Wikus’. They must find the fluid in order to return to their planet. Wikus doesn’t quite understand what’s going on with him. Only at the end of this sequence does he have a clear, strong goal: to survive.
This sequence, too, opens with a shift in POV: very briefly we go back to Christopher. Immediately after that, we shift POV again, to the Nigerians. The climax of this sequence feels like an early mid point as it acts as a massive reversal, with the world suddenly turned against our Hero. After this, the movie’s tone will be a lot darker.
Sequence D: A Fugitive, going back to the alien slums. (10 mins)
44:30 (pov) Piet informed of escape, Koobus leading the manhunt for Wikus.
46:00 Calling friends; they let him down. Hassled at takeaway, shot at.
46:30 (pov) “He became the most valuable business artifact on earth.”
48:00 (pov) The entire world’s attention and focus is on Wikus.
49:00 Wikus seeks refuge in District 9, the only place he can go to.
49:30 Queuing with other aliens for food from the Nigerians. Eating cat food.
51:00 Call from Tania: “I don’t want you to hold me again.”
52:00 Wikus attempts to cut his alien arm off.
53:00 Koobus and fleet of helicopters arrive in District 9.
This sequence offers little more than an extended chase, starting with Wikus’ escape from MNU and ending with his arrival at Christopher’s shack. The story doesn’t really progress much but the tension is kept high in a way that is utterly cinematic. It is significant that Wikus’ wife has given up on him when she says “I don’t want you to hold me again,” which is the start of her ‘shape-shifting’. The sequence ends on great tension, with Koobus and his men close on Wikus’ heels. This marks the story’s real Mid Point as from this point onwards Wikus will be working with the aliens rather than against them. Remember another blockbuster movie with aliens that had a similar reversal around the mid point?
Sequence E: Becoming an alien and teaming up with Christopher. (10mins)
54:00 Wikus hides out in Christopher’s shack. Begs him to help him.
54:30 Christopher sees Wikus’ alien arm and decides to hide him.
56:00 Secret bunker under the shack with ship to get back to the mothership.
56:30 Christopher can fix Wikus’ condition if they can get to the mothership.
57:00 They have to break into MNU headquarters and get the fluid.
58:00 Wikus’ transformation is accelerating.
58:30 Tania wants Wikus back. He is determined now to carry out the plan.
59.30 (pov Koobus & Piet) They’re locating Wikus to get him.
60:00 (pov aliens) Aliens compare their planet to Earth, looking forward to going home.
Wikus is at first selfish when he works with Christopher to get the fluid back: he only wants to get himself fixed. This first sequence after the Mid Point also sets up something that is typical for many successful stories: the Approach To The Inmost Cave. Wikus will have to return to the place that is most dangerous to him: the headquarters of MNU. This place will also become the Inmost Cave for Christopher when he sees the dead body of his friend.
Sequence F: Going into MNU. (10mins)
61:00 Wikus goes to the Nigerians to get weapons. They want his arm.
63:30 Wikus fights his way out, using alien weapons.
64:30 Wikus and Christopher storm into MNU headquarters.
67:00 Wikus finds the fluid. Christopher distracted by alien bodies.
68:00 Military come in. Shootout.
69:00 “think of your boy for fuck’s sake” Christopher wakes up and they escape together.
In the Approach sequence, the hero has to show how far he is willing to go in order to achieve his goal. Wikus has to shoot and kill humans in order to get the fluid, which underscores his further transformation to alien. In this Inmost Cave, where Wikus had faced death before, they find the fluid (a first Reward in Wikus Hero’s Journey).
In the climax of the sequence we see Wikus no longer just thinking about fixing himself when he encourages Christopher “Think of your boy…”.
Sequence G: Betrayed by Christopher. Tortured by Obesanjo. (10mins)
71:00 Christopher wans to save aliens first. Will be back in 3 years.
72:00 Wikus feels betrayed. Attempts to go to mothership on his own.
73:00 Koobus enters the shack.
73:30 Wikus fires up the ship and takes off.
75:30 Ship is shot down by missile.
76:00 Ship crashes down. Alien and Wikus captured by Koobus.
78:00 Convoy ambushed by Nigerians, Wikus taken.
79:30 (pov) Christopher’s son, still in the ship, is able to activate it.
80:00 Obesanjo tortures Wikus, wants to eat his arm to get his powers.
82:00 (pov) Son activates mothership, alien devices re-activate everywhere.
District 9 has three sequences between the Mid Point and the end of Act Two. I wonder if this is typical for darker films. In any case it seems like the Ordeal (or Crisis) is extended to an entire sequence of 12 minutes. When Christopher tells Wikus that he wants to help his alien people first, it feels to Wikus as if all is lost. Later – in a typical ‘Cave‘ moment – he is being tortured and nearly killed by Obesanjo. Christopher’s son manages to re-activate the mother ship, which opens the doors to Act Three (in the Hero’s Journey this moment is a second Reward, aka the Seizing of the Sword).
Sequence G: Protecting Christopher – Wikus vs. Koobus. (10mins)
83:00 Wikus escapes with the aid of a robot.
84:00 (pov) Koobus interrogates Christopher.
85:00 Wikus steps into exoskeleton. Hears that Koobus wants to kill Christopher.
86:00 Wikus decides to rescue him and help him to the dropship.
89:30 Wikus covers for Christopher but snipers injure him. Christopher runs.
90:00 Wikus fights against the military.
92:00 Alien makes it to dropship and gets lifted up to mothership.
93:00 Wikus vs. Koobus
94:00 Wikus falls out of exoskeleton. Koobus approaches.
95:00 Wikus left at the mercy of Koobus.
96:00 Koobus about to execute Wikus when other aliens move in and kill Koobus.
97:00 Mothership begins journey back home. Leaves earth.
The climax brings all the forces of good and evil together in one explosive climactic battle – and a setup for the sequel. One could argue that Obesanjo should have survived Act Two as he could have further complicated the climactic battle. Then again, Koobus is strong enough as the ultimate villain as he was set up from the Prologue and it keeps things simple to have only one major Shadow character.
Sequence H: Wikus gone. Waiting for three years. (3mins)
98:00 Wikus left to await his fate.
99:00 (pov) Theories about Wikus’ whereabouts. Setup of District 10.
100:0 Tania receives a flower. Evidence that Wikus is still alive?
101:0 Wikus completely transformed into an alien.
5 thoughts on “Structure: District 9”
Loved this movie. Even the extreme violence was forgiven due to the underlying theme. I am glad I have read the article today as I am in the excruciating early days of writing a Sci-fi feature from a script that was initially written as a TV soap opera satire! Can it be done? Yes it can, and District 9 is an inspiration. Thanks Karel.
Another short made into a feature is Cashback. In this film, the feature version builds a story around the short film, and the short is included in the middle of the feature, not re-shot.
Thank you for this. It sounds intriguing… like the structure of The Red Shoes?
I will surely check it out.
I am trying to learn about script’s structure. And your blog is very instructive. For “District 9” I have some disagreements. So, I want to force a discussion, not in the will of imposing my point of view but rather to learn from the process. (By the way, English is not my first language)
You refer to a Prologue separated from Act I. I see only Act I, as the presentation of the main CHARACTERS (From the vague “alien’s affairs workers” to the specifics wife and boss… a clear focus on the protagonist), the WORLD (Location, time…) and the SITUATION (We have aliens and they are a problem that has to be dealt with).
Instead of a Prologue, I would say that the presentation is made to remark the separation between THEM and US. What you call prologue I call the presentation of US (the first 10 minutes). And THEY, the aliens, are presented through OUR eyes (The next 10 minutes).
The scene you call THE FLUID, I would call “They are human too”. While searching in the garbage, aliens are shown to have technology (thus they must be smart, even smarter than US) and the attention given to the alien child shows they can be sensitive too. In fact, the preparation of the fluid and the remorse at the moment Wikus has the first symptoms remarks they are very human (A scheme and a full consciousness of it consequences, good and bad consequences. Remorse is a clear expression of empathy/sympathy).
The birthday scene is added to make a point: although we take for granted we are part of the US, the US can make us THEM. That’s why the family environment contrasts with the cold documental-type camera shots, which remind we are being observed (like the aliens) by somebody that has never interacted with us (Think of ethologic or anthropologic documentals; made in the wild, camera cannot be steady, most of the time it must be hand held. There is a sharp contrast with the inserted, solid and clean interviews of the “know-all” specialists. The camera being fixed, the specialist have some control of the images through their movements; in the birthday scene, characters are subjugated to the camera’s point of view – by the way, is only one camera, only one perspective.)
The birthday scene is for the logical structure the most important. Nonetheless, it has to be subtle to consolidate the arguments. Acquiring full consciousness is not a big challenge if patterns are clear. It’s harder to take sides when you are not sure which side you are. (Not being fully conscious of the conditions and your situation makes it very hard to have an opinion or make a decision. As spectator, you still do not know if you are for or against Wikus. Go back in the movie and asks you: Isn’t Wikus trying to do the good thing? … The problem is that he is doing, even thinking, what he is being told to do and think. He believes that’s the good think. When he realizes it isn’t, we achieve the midpoint of the movie).
When Wikus gets sprayed is the Inciting Incident.
The Plot Point One is when his alien hand is revealed. Think of Thelma and Louise, PP1 is when they decide to run. Here PP1 is when they decide Wikus is an alien. In comparison, Thelma and Louise are less conflicted characters in the sense they always know what they want or need. They also know they are free to make their decisions (Thelma just leave without telling his husband). At the end we realize all Thelma and Louise wanted is to escape from responsibilities. They were doing so by letting others make the decisions, the action proceeds and they have no choice than to become responsible of their decisions. That’s why they run away in the final scene; they decide to remain childish. Thelma and Louise movie is emotionally satisfactory. Not only the protagonists are appealing but also achieve an illusion of liberation. District 9 is more intellectual, no big emotional satisfactions, just a feeling of improvement (Wikus can be a subject for respect and compassion).