District 9 Aftermath: What sci-fi flick got it all (read: mostly) right?

District 9 did a ton of things right that more than compensate for the shortcomings. I think science fiction, because of the leaps it wants to take and asks viewers to take, is not going to stand up against a critical taste test most times unless it stays in a mode that is only 5 years into the future with no alien technology making an appearance. If it is alien technology that we can easily explain by our standards, how alien is it really?

A pretty good science fiction movie takes science we know and tries to blend it with the unknown. By its nature, Sci-Fi is making stuff up that we have to accept as fact. Then, in the afterglow, we have two, maybe three choices.

  1. Accept that there are going to be holes, afterall, some stuff is just made up and how fun would it be if we could explain every point and connect every dot? I think the films would turn out much more formulaic and predictable. That is the one thing I like about sci-fi…it keeps me guessing. We could (and many do) pick Lost apart, but it is so much more fun to just go with it most of the time. There is so much shite in film and TV that we have to let ourselves enjoy things that are trying to be different and showing us something new.

  2. Require that the plots adhere better to guidlines and justifications that would appear most plausible. Well, I kind of covered this. I think the films would lose some of their originality if they did this. I am not saying that there are not great science fiction films that do this well. I believe it does make it much harder to surprise folks with the unexpected and cool stuff. If it is all easily explainable with what we know, it becomes almost all science and little fiction other than the drama/thriller covering that is laid over it.


  1. Cry foul because there is just too much they are asking us to swallow and none of it really flows like we would want it to. This really only goes for the really bad sci-fi. If you are not prepared to bridge some of your own gaps and take those leaps of faith that the makers of decent sci-fi films are asking of you at various plot points, don’t go see science fiction.

Books in the sci-fi genre and especially the Hard science sub-genre, have more of an advantage because of the hundreds of pages with which facets of technology can be described. Plus, the written word can oftentimes do a better job of describing as it is literally spelling things out. In addition, the reader can go back immediately to iron out any perceived wrinkles or misunderstandings. Of course, that does mean authors have to be more thorough. For my taste, the Hard science books many times fall into choice number two above. Not always predictable, but it becomes less surprising and more like a very engaging, high-level college science class. Still enjoy it, but not quite as much. Asking a film to attempt to do something similar while entertaining and not go over 2 and 1/2 hours is a tall order.

I am not here to suggest any as I thought District 9, The Matrix, Sunshine, and plenty of others did a good enough job for me in showing me things that were different without asking me to believe, “Rainwater falls upward in this movie…accept it!”. Maybe I simply have a much shorter stick by which I measure the need for strict believability. I also have the handicap of not being quite the student of film some of you guys are as my movie-a-week days are long gone. (I mean, even though I had a good guess, I had to Dictionary.com “Cineaste”. Imagine my embarassment) Also, I have forgotten more about movies than I will most likely learn between now and when I keel over in front of a roguelike the second before I finally beat one. These factors explain why I cannot point to a laundry list off my top films off of the top of my head without doing some lame reasearch and IMDB list. I thought there was a time when everyone loved The Matrix, but because of the subsequent two films (and Speed Racer), now lots of folks consider it mediocre.

So, what you guys/gals got? Bare in mind, I understand that your approach and expectations from movies in this genre may be completely different and my handy 3-choice breakdown and descriptions above may apply only in part or not at all to you.

EDIT: Furthermore, that post became entirely too long, so feel free to turn this into a lame list thread. ;)

Mac and Me.

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I think most sci-fi moviegoers are willing to give quite a bit as part of their suspension of disbelief. For example, in District 9, you’re asked to believe that faster-than-light travel exists, and also that aliens who developed on a completely different planet would coincidentally end up bipedal, roughly our height, with two arms ending in hands as their major manipulators, a head atop the body with two closely-set eyes, that breathe air, eat protein, communicate via soundwaves, etc. There’s a bunch of gee-whiz energy weaponry, there’s antigravity, and so on. A lot of that is typical sci-fi tropes, and in any event that’s the setup for the movie. And with the possible exception of FTL travel, it’s all reasonably plausible even if impossible by our current technology.

As we saw in the D9 thread, I had issues with one mid-movie plot point which I won’t get into here since (a) I don’t want to spoilerize it for people and (2) it’s covered ad nauseam in the other thread anyway.

It reminds me a lot of the War of the Worlds thread. That was another movie that I definitely liked (I think it was on my top 10 list that year), and in which I was willing to accept a host of sci-fi stuff that wasn’t “explainable” by our current technology but was theoretically plausible – giant walking tanks, heat weaponry, forcefields, aliens from another world visiting earth, their ability to terraform the planet for food, etc. But the sour note (for me, at least) in that movie was the way the aliens planned a meticulous invasion that unfolded over thousands of years and then all caught colds and died. Because it seemed like aliens smart enough to wage a massively successful interstellar invasion would probably think to wear germ suits or whatever when coming out into their conquered alien world. (The original dealt with this by postulating it as a last-ditch crash effort to get off a dying world, but in the movie it’s something that has been carefully planned for millennia.)

The general counter-argument in the WotW thread was basically the same as the one in the D9 thread: it’s a movie about aliens, so anything goes. If something doesn’t make sense, it’s no more improbable than the existence of space aliens in the first place, so who cares?

I’d have to think pretty hard to come up with a sci-fi movie that doesn’t have some stuff like that in it. I guess 2001 is my first thought, but I haven’t seen it in ages. Sci-fi is more vulnerable to that sort of thing, I think, because it’s so tempting for the writers to try to get exactly what they want by glossing over problems with “It’s a space wormhole” or “We could try routing the warp coil through the deflector array” or whatever.

I think it’s more vulnerable to being nitpicked on that level because its enthusiasts are generally detail-oriented (or obsessed, if you prefer) nerd types. You could subject just about any work of fiction to that level of scrutiny and it probably wouldn’t hold up all that well, because real life doesn’t happen the way stories do.

I would very seriously say that District 9 has no plot holes to speak of. Nothing in the film takes a logic leap that is outside the boundaries of what the premise asks you to accept in the first place. The people nitpicking it are, intentionally or not, taking things down a different road than the movie’s universe does, and ending up at a different place in which things no longer work for them. I have a hard time blaming the writers on this one.

Honestly District 9 is the most airtight sci-fi film I’ve seen in a very, very long time. It covers its bases well enough to get the story told but doesn’t explain so much that it starts to bog down in impossibility. Moon does a similar thing, although with a slightly wonkier premise. I hope future sci-fi filmmakers learn some lessons from these two movies, although I suspect that both of them only exist because they were made outside the Hollywood studio system.

Books in the sci-fi genre and especially the Hard science sub-genre, have more of an advantage because of the hundreds of pages with which facets of technology can be described. Plus, the written word can oftentimes do a better job of describing as it is literally spelling things out. In addition, the reader can go back immediately to iron out any perceived wrinkles or misunderstandings. Of course, that does mean authors have to be more thorough. For my taste, the Hard science books many times fall into choice number two above. Not always predictable, but it becomes less surprising and more like a very engaging, high-level college science class. Still enjoy it, but not quite as much. Asking a film to attempt to do something similar while entertaining and not go over 2 and 1/2 hours is a tall order.

extarbags and I have been talking a lot about this subject lately and he makes this point and I really agree - I absolutely think that’s a key difference between sci fi film and sci fi novels, especially the hard science ones. Film is just not nearly as well suited to describing the theoretical speculation to get from Point A to Point Z in a scientifically plausible way.

Personally speaking, I have little to no interest or knowledge of theoretical physics and no interest in hard science sci fi. It’s just not my cup of tea. What I love about sci fi and fantasy, though, is their ability to plunk characters in totally unrealistic, highly imaginative settings and see how things play out. It allows for great thought experiments. Characters, stories, and writing all matter far more to me than how plausible the science is. So as long as the writer/filmmaker is consistent about how they deploy unrealistic/improbable things, and there are compelling characters and stories in that world, I am happy.

I don’t recall the specifics of the War of the Worlds argument, but the more correct answer is that you’re missing the point by focusing on the science of microbes rather than the dramatic function of microbes in the story (seemingly invincible military power destroyed by invisible foe as a message about hubris). In other words, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

I’m surprised at how often this happens, particularly in science fiction. My theory is that so many of you guys are accustomed to bullshit Star Trek scienc-y explanations in lieu of storytelling.

Let’s consider some stuff from this forum. Some kids in Maryland refusing to drop their cameras despite being in a scary life-threatening situation? A guy surviving on a spaceship for seven years near the sun? The military didn’t lock in someone infected with zombie blood? Aliens allergic to water? The mass of a 50-foot-tall giant robot compacted down into a Ford Mustang? The monster going from the NYC point A to NYC Point B in only thirty minutes? Wiping the blood off a magazine so the bullets don’t jam? A moon base where the lone inhabitant doesn’t bounce lightly whenever he walks because of the reduced gravity? Alien refugees not using their superior weapons to rise up against people who mistreat them?

In each of these cases, the important question isn’t how plausible it is. The question is how well it serves the story. Although I hated some of the movies I just listed, I didn’t have the least problem with any of those issues.

Tyjenks’ question is fundamentally misguided. A good science fiction story doesn’t have to be any more or less realistic than any good story. And if scientific plausibility is your priority, you’re already in the wrong genre.


Yeah, I thought about this thread’s question, and I honestly can’t think of movie I’ve ever seen that does a clearly better* job giving me what I want out of sci-fi than District 9; an interesting world without a bunch of bullshit pseudoscientific explanations, an interesting, thought-provoking story that serves as a metaphor for our world, and sensible, logical plotting given its premises.

*note: that’s not to say I haven’t seen several that are tied.

District 9 didnt do too much for me…the man turning into the alien from fluid that runs a ship just didnt work.

My fav Sci Fi is Alien. Fear of the unknown, fear of something more powerful than us, excitement of discovery, etc. The idea that there is something out there, some things out there other than us and taking me there to explore those places, those things, is a lot more enjoyable to me than story that serves as a metaphor for our world, etc.

I know my world, I dont want my OUT THERE sci fi intruding upon it…I want OUT THERE to take me away from my world.

I have no particular problem with War of the Worlds (I thought the Tom Cruise version was shitty but not particularly for plot reasons, I just hated most of the characters).

However, I’d say that there are lots of ways to tell a great story about hubris, without making the conscious decision to bring in science elements that anyone who knows a bit about science would find implausible. If you’re going to bring the science, then really bring it and don’t be lazy about it when dealing with relatively basic stuff. Obviously, this won’t matter in a movie like Star Wars or Flash Gordon or Aliens. But…take Signs. My read is that the movie is about a crisis of faith, and not literally about an alien invasion. But I don’t understand why you can’t write a story about a crisis of faith that doesn’t also ask me to buy that aliens would bother to invade a planet completely covered with a substance deadly to them.

If a sci-fi movie-with-symbolsm-or-metaphor hinges on a plot point that makes little scientific sense, then maybe the writer would be better off exploring their ideas in a non-science fiction story, or crafting a story where the science is setting fluff and not really important to the plot.

And The Matrix is still a good film. The humans-as-power sources thing is scientifically ridiculous but neither the mechanical plot nor the philisophical metastuff hinge on it so it doesn’t matter.


Oh snap.

Hugin stop! Stop I say! I said almost (but not quite) the same thing about parts of The Road and the exploration (or lack there of) of certain aspects of the post-apocalyptic setting it introduced into the story, bad idea man.

Don’t get lumped in with me as the retard-de-jour when it comes to plot and story analysis.

Personally I want a movie to be consistent with itself. I’ll give the filmmaker quite a bit of length of rope so they can tell their story, but they had better not hang themselves with it. It’s funny you mentioned Sunshine because that’s a movie that asks a lot from the viewer (global cooling because the sun is going dim and we’re going to nuke it to bring it back to life) which I gave to them, yet I felt the filmmaker hanged himself with. I really liked it for the first 1/2 (4 /5 on the NetFlix scale), but in the end did not like it at all (2 / 5 on the NetFlix scale).

There are always going to be people that have a bone to pick with the science in SF, you can’t please everyone. What the creators need to do is make sure the material stays true to itself.

Tom, basically I’d say that Shakespeare was not making movies in the modern, typically, realistic style most of the films we’re discussing use. I’m not looking for plausible science in Star Wars, instead I ask for evocative and reasonably consistent worldbuilding. By the same token I’m not asking for historical accuracy about the monarchy in Denmark from Hamlet.

I’d also argue that it’s possible to discuss preferences or rules of thumb in human endeavors while allowing that a few people who are, you know, arguably the best ever at whatever is being discussed, can break those rules and get away with it. It doesn’t mean everyone should or that when they try the results are good.

I believe I have made clear that plausibility is not much of a priority for me. I do not want to be treated like a moron by the film makers, obviously, and I fully expect science fiction films to throw curves that you have to apply reason to while still accepting that you are not really meant to understand it fully. I think District 9 is about as plausible as it gets along with being entertaining, plus it crafts a great story with interesting characters. PLausibility is not a priority for me, but it would seem that it is for a good portion of folks here.

I guess my question was moreso what does it take to please those critical of sci-fi films such as District 9? Many seem to base their critique of sci-fi flicks heavily on the plauability factors to a point where they let it get in the way both during and upon reflection on the films…not to the point of disliking it, but it would appear it impededes their full enjoyment. I got to thinking yesterday about whether or not a film existed that satisfied the checklists some critics of the genre have. I, sincerely, wanted to be pointed to some examples. (Or a tacit admission that they will forever be let down by these movies because of their hyper-criticalalityness)

Meh, my questions never become clear until someone else distills my thoughts or clarifies them for me. I need a Qt3 post editor. Maybe the dude that sits around NOT editing Stephen King can do it.

Well, I assume critics of the genre* just aren’t into sci-fi. But there’s plenty of sci-fi that doesn’t put spaceships and whatnot front and center. The Prestige and Gattica, for example, are superlative sci-fi movies that don’t wear the genre on their sleeves. A lot of people really liked Jerome Bixby’s Man from Earth, and that’s just a parlor room drama. I wonder if those might be examples of what you’re thinking of.

  • I’m assuming you mean people who are critical of the genre, which is a nitpicky but important distinction.

That’s how I’ve been picturing everyone ragging on District 9 in the other thread, just so you know.

“Dragons are fantasy. It’s bullshit.”

Sci fi has an extra vulnerability, though, because the writers are already being given some license to invent things that don’t exist and are maybe not even theoretically possible based on our current understanding of things. If you’re writing about two people in regular, modern-day New York, there’s more limitation on what you can come up with to move the plot along, because everything has to fit into what we already know – you can have amazing coincidences of timing or whatever, but that’s about it. In sci-fi you’re already playing God, as it were, and I think there’s a real temptation to say “I need the plot to do X,” and while the New York writer is constrained by real life, the sci-fi writer knows that he can just wave his wand and say “Plus, wormholes bring people back to life!” or “And alien gas also turns people into monsters!” And that can be tough to resist. But I will agree with you that its plausibility ranks up there with Moon’s (another movie I liked – more than D9, actually – that will be in my top 10 this year for sure).

And that’s the fundamental disconnect, which we already discussed in WotW, D9, The Hurt Locker, Memento, Moon (although I was on your side that time), and I’m sure a zillion other movies. The Tom Chick view is that as long as it makes the story more interesting, who cares if its believable or even possible. The Ryan Williams view is that if it doesn’t have at least tenuous plausibility or sense, it’s bad or lazy writing. Same deal if it’s not internally consistent (e.g., Memento).

But I think that if pressed, you’d have to abandon the extremity of your position. You could just as easily have shown the aliens’ hubris by having them all trip and fall at the same time. Look at you with your mighty invasion machines! You all slipped in the bathtub and broke your heads!! But that’s dumb, right? We can all agree that would be dumb and unbelievable? Even though it would illustrate that the mighty can be brought low by the smallest thing? If you agree, then we’ve left the realm of “If it makes an interesting point, who cares” and entered a realm of line-drawing; how far is too far? And at that point, I think you have to stop falling back on a sweeping universal argument of “But it makes an interesting point” and start talking about how plausible it is versus how good a point it makes, and versus whether there was some less-contrived way to make that happen.

I really like the Hamlet example. I know nothing about Danish succession and had no idea there was some problem with it in Hamlet. But assuming there is, that’s a legitimate critique. It doesn’t make Hamlet a bad play, just like D9 and Moon are still excellent movies. But if anyone watching it at the time would go “Wait a minute, that wouldn’t happen – what is he talking about?”, that is a problem in Hamlet’s plotting. And it’s totally legitimate for someone of the time to say “I loved this play, but it’s too bad he couldn’t come up with a better way to motivate X, because what he did doesn’t make logical sense.”

In the movie list, by the way, Tom mentioned The Prestige, which I’d say is another movie that is pretty much airtight once you accept its premise (although you must swallow one amazing coincidence of circumstances; but that coincidence is not related to the movie’s sci-fi). Gattaca is another good example mentioned by Tom.