I feel like I should apologize for everything I’m about to write here in advance. The thing is I saw District 9 last week and I liked it, I really did. It’s a solid science fiction movie with sharp special effects and a brain rattling around somewhere in its CGI noggin. When you see it, you’ll go nuts for it. It’s likely to engender the kind of broad-based adoration not seen since Star Trek appeared earlier this summer, warped across all walks of life, and became one of those rare movies that everyone agreed was, wow, pretty good. And District 9 is indeed pretty good. In fact District 9 is a lot of things, most of them very positive. One thing it isn’t, though, is original.
Yet if you read some of the early reviews posted for the film, that’s the praise you’ll hear most frequently launched in its direction. The words “fresh”, “original”, “unique”, and “groundbreaking” have been used liberally in describing it and in particular its story. So I guess I’m the only one who’s seen Alien Nation?
The year is 1988 and in theaters is a movie about a near future where alien refugees have landed and humanity is forced to deal with the consequences of their presence. Sound familiar? Hey, that’s the plot of District 9! It’s also the plot of the movie Alien Nation, starring James Caan and Mandy Patinkin, and the acclaimed television series it went on to spawn a year later in 1989. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. District 9 is a great movie. Make sure you’re there, ticket in hand, to see it opening weekend. It’s a fantastic experience and writer/director Neill Blomkamp deserves praise for what he’s accomplished. But it’s not fresh. It’s not original. In fact, whether intentional or by accident, it’s kind of an Alien Nation knockoff.
Want proof? Here it is. Below I break down the similarities but be warned, in doing so I’ll be forced to hack through heavy District 9 spoiler foliage. If you want to see D9 unspoiled then read no further, unless of course you’ve seen Alien Nation, in which case you’re spoiled already.
In Alien Nation: When the movie begins Alien Nation’s aliens, called Newcomers, have been on the ground for many years. We never actually see their landing, except in brief flashbacks and stories told by present day characters who were there. Through those flashbacks and stories we learn that the Newcomers descended out of nowhere, with no communication, to hover above the ground near Los Angles, California in a single, massive, saucer-shaped spaceship.
In District 9: When the movie begins District 9‘s aliens, called Prawns, have been on the ground for many years. We never actually see their landing, except in brief flashbacks and stories told by present day characters who were there. Through those flashbacks and stories we learn that the Prawns descended out of nowhere, with no communication, to hover above the ground near Johannesburg, South Africa in a single, massive, saucer-shaped spaceship.
In District 9: Prawns were bred as workers meant to carry out manual labor. When discovered aboard their ship they appear to be of limited intelligence, almost unable to take care of themselves, though they’re very good at taking orders. Once taken off the ship and brought to Earth things begin to change and there are hints that not only are they intelligent, they may be far smarter than us.
In Alien Nation: Newcomers were bred as workers and slaves meant to carry out manual labor. When discovered aboard their ship they’d been drugged to dull their intelligence and make them obedient, almost to the point that they’re unable to take care of themselves. Once taken off the ship and brought to Earth things begin to change and there are hints that not only are they intelligent, they may be far smarter than us.
In Alien Nation: Since Newcomers are basically obedient workers being shuttled around on a transport ship, no one is entirely sure how they got to Earth in the first place. Investigators never discover a ship’s pilot or crew, nor does there seem to be anyone giving orders… at first. Eventually the Newcomers in charge are revealed as a subplot in the film’s subsequent spin-off TV series.
In District 9: Since Prawns are basically obedient workers being shuttled around on a transport ship, no one is entirely sure how they got to Earth in the first place. Investigators never discover a ship’s pilot or crew, nor does there seem to be anyone giving orders… at first. Eventually the Prawns hidden leaders reveal themselves and by the end of the movie we know where the Prawn leader has been hiding.
In District 9: Prawns are often referred to by a variety of other names, most of which, like Prawn, are really just bigoted slurs. Prawn is not their proper species name. In fact they are and prefer to be called… a complicated name which I’ve forgotten. Hey give me a break. In addition to being given English substitutes for their species name, Prawns are also given human personal names to use in their daily life. For instance, Christopher Johnson is the name of the Prawn lead in District 9.
In Alien Nation: Newcomers are often referred to as Slags, which is regarded as a bigoted slur. Neither Slag nor Newcomer is their proper species name. In fact they are and prefer to be called the Tenctonese. In addition to being given English substitutes for their species name, Newcomers are also given human personal names to use in their daily life. For instance, George Francisco is the name of the Newcomer lead in Alien Nation.
In Alien Nation: Aliens look pretty much like bald versions of us, except with spots, but they possess physical strength far beyond that of normal human beings.
In District 9: Aliens look like giant bugs, or prawns as their name suggests, and they possess physical strength far beyond that of normal human beings.
Internment Camps: An Alien Staycation
In District 9: When they first land Prawns are held in internment camps to protect a nervous human population from them.
In Alien Nation: When they first land Newcomers are held for several years in internment camps as they’re processed and certified safe enough to be allowed out in public.
Outer Spacial Descrimination
In District 9: Prawns are used as a stand-in for discriminated against minorities, in particular South Africa’s struggle with Apartheid which was a political and social policy of segregating blacks from whites.
In Alien Nation: Newcomers are used as a stand-in for discriminated against minorities, in particular they symbolize the struggle of black Americans against discrimination during the civil rights movement.
Hater With A Heart Of Gold
In Alien Nation: A bigoted homicide detective is forced to team up with a Newcomer by a government integration program. As they work together to solve crime, the Newcomer begins to win over his human partner who eventually abandons his bigoted views.
In District 9: A bigoted civil servant is forced to team up with a Prawn when circumstances beyond his control force him to take desperate measures. As they work together on a common cause, the bigoted human and wary alien develop a begrudging respect for one another.
Addicted To Gross
In District 9: Prawns are addicted to cat food which affects them like catnip. Though it disgusts humans, they’ll do almost anything to get it.
In Alien Nation: Newcomers are addicted to sour milk which affects them like alcohol. Though it disgusts humans, some aliens will do almost anything to get it.
Something’s Growing On Timmy
In Alien Nation: Two of the major subplots of the spin-off television series and the film involved both a strange substance which has unexpected effects on Newcomers and a dangerous disease which may have been brought to Earth along with the aliens. Newcomers will do anything to hide the truth of both.
In District 9: A strange substance brought to Earth by the Prawns has an unexpected and dangerous affect on humans. Both the Prawns and South Africa’s mega-corporation controlled government will do or say anything to hide the truth of what’s happening.
There you have it. If it were made by Quentin Tarantino District 9 would be an homage. With luck, Blomkamp can get some sort of special QT dispensation.
So maybe it’s not entirely original and maybe it’s not completely unique, at least for anyone born before 1989. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Whether knowingly or by accident, what Blomkamp has done is take an old idea and give it his own twist, his own flavor, and done it up in his own style. In some ways he’s made it even better. So to be fair, as long as we’re picking this thing apart here’s a few examples of District 9 going its own way.
Aliens Are Aliens, Not Fleshy-Headed Humans
In District 9: Prawns are nothing like humans. In fact at times, their motivations are almost incomprehensible. They’re not reasonable creatures who want to fit in and get along, often they’re violent, they’re dangerous, they’re flat out gross and maybe it’s not such a bad idea penning them up like cattle and keeping them away from human populations. They just might want to eat us.
In Alien Nation: Though the movie and the television show spend a lot of time telling us how different humans and Newcomers are, when it comes right down to it the aliens are basically bald humans with spots. Sometimes that works to Alien Nation’s advantage. Sexually promiscuous, ultra-sexy alien females are never a bad thing, but mostly it’s the result of what happens when you don’t have the budget necessary to pull something grander off.
Mockument This Christopher Guest
In District 9: The entire film is shot documentary style and put together with cutting edge special effects. Every frame of it feels like something that could happen at any moment, and most of the movie absolutely lives on the edge. Danger lurks around every corner and the tension is frightening and palpable. District 9 is brutal and unflinching, bringing a high-tech horror movie aesthetic to smart science fiction.
In Alien Nation: Both the movie and the television show are shot and scripted like a generic television drama. It never really takes full advantage of its alien premise, again in large part because of budget constraints, but maybe also because it simply lacks the imagination to go there. Whatever the reason, Alien Nation never feels real. It never feels like something that could be happening just outside of town. It never feels dangerous.
James Caan Can’t Compete With Sharlto Copley
In District 9: Neill Blomkamp goes with a complete unknown for the lead in his film, a long time friend named Sharlto Copley. Write that name down, you’ll be hearing a lot more of it. He’s a character actor and a brilliant one. As Wikus Van De Merwe, a somewhat dim-witted civil servant completely out of his depth and in over his head, he’s utterly real. You’ve known people exactly like Wikus, he’s the idiot boss who smiles while announcing layoffs, or the middle manager sucking up to the boss. He’s all at one loathsome and lovable. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
In Alien Nation: In the movie version the human lead is played by James Caan who, doesn’t really seem to understand the script. Caan’s given great performances in his career, but what he gives in Alien Nation is not one of them. It’s as if he doesn’t believe most of what’s going on around him is real, or for that matter even comprehend the words coming out of his mouth, making it pretty difficult for the rest of us to buy into it if he doesn’t.
Greed Isn’t Good
In District 9: The film is indeed a loose allegory for Apartheid but it’s not content with tackling just one social issue. D9 also takes on rampant corporate corruption and if there’s a villain in the movie it’s not a bigoted, fearful populace as much as it is an out of control, evil corporation which will stop and nothing to screw over the human race in order to make a tidy profit. Racism and capitalist greed get crammed, successfully, all into one movie.
In Alien Nation: The film’s fairly standard storyline is easily bogged down and quickly becomes a fairly standard buddy cop movie, even if one of the buddy cops happens to be an alien. The film and the television show do tackle racial issues through discrimination against the Alien newcomers, but it’s usually straightforward without layers other than “hey remember when this used to happen if you were black?”
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