District 9 Beat Sheet
The “District 9” breakdown breakdown was written by Save the Cat!® contributing editor and Austin screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez.
A thought-provoking science fiction allegory with enough clever ideas for 10 films, writers Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tachell’s “District 9” impresses with its fully realized dystopian near-future, amazing visual effects, and beat-aligned structural integrity. Adapted from Blomkamp’s “Alive in Joburg,” “District 9” weaves a metaphor of apartheid against the backdrop of an alien invasion. Using a blend of documentary-style cinema verité, surveillance-cam footage and traditional filmmaking styles, “District 9” nails each beat from Opening Image to Final Image with clockwork precision.
Let’s beat it out!
Opening Image: A documentary news crew introduces us to Wikus van der Merwe, a mild-mannered and nerdy “little guy” on the corporate ladder, and the new pointman for a public relations initiative with a mammoth conglomerate, MNU.
Theme Stated: Twenty years ago, a massive alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the alien life forms inside are now being kept in a detention camp called District 9. A woman interviewed on the street says, “At least they’re keeping them separate from us.” The theme is going to be HUMAN vs. ALIEN, Man vs. the Other. What separates us? What makes us the same?
Set-Up: An alien ship stalls out over South Africa. Its hull teems with insect-like humanoids, derogatorily nicknamed “prawns,” a malnourished, sickly horde. They are brought to the surface and placed in a makeshift shantytown soon to be known as District 9. Over the next two decades, District 9 becomes a ghetto, rife with crime. The dorky Wikus seems an unlikely protagonist, and the tone of the interviewees leads us think something has happened to him, but we don’t yet know what. Wikus’ Save the Cat moment appears when his mother speaks of him as a good son and a smart boy. His wife, Tania, shows the camera an intricate flower that Wikus made for her: “Wikus was always making me things. He said, ‘That way, they mean so much more.'”
Catalyst: Piet Smit, a powerbroker at MNU, inexplicably appoints his pencil-pushing son-in-law Wikus Van de Merwe to lead the mass eviction of nearly 2 million “prawns” from District 9.
Debate: Wikus runs afoul of the “cowboy” mercenaries, led by Koobus, when he tries to ensure they carry no more than their allowed supply of ammunition. When several aliens are unwilling to leave peaceably, the shooting starts. Wikus attempts to distract them with cans of cat food, which has a drug-like effect on them. Black marketers, controlled by Nigerian gangs who abuse and cheat the aliens, run scams and stockpile alien weaponry, which is useless to humans — because the weapons are encoded to be fired only by the aliens. MNU is revealed to be one of the top weapons manufacturers in the world, and the underlying cause for the mass eviction is to procure the aliens’ arsenal.
B Story: An alien, “Christopher Johnson,” and his son scour the trash heaps in D9 looking for alien technology which contains a fluid they have been distilling for the last two decades. It will refuel their command module and power the return to their home planet. They complete the distillation process and attempt to hide the fluid cylinder in a buddy’s shack.
Break into 2: Wikus discovers the fluid cylinder; he tampers with it, and is sprayed in the face. No turning back.
Fun and Games: Violence escalates as the evictions continue, and Wikus is injured when an alien burns his arm. Obesandjo, the leader of the Nigerian gang, has hatched a plan to use the alien weaponry, by consuming “prawn” body parts in a quasi-religious ceremony.
Wikus starts to show the effects of the fluid: fever, vomiting, losing fingernails. Forced to cut the evictions short, he heads out, taking the fluid canister with him.
At home, Wikus walks into a surprise party to celebrate his promotion, and vomits out a black spray over his cake. Admitted to the hospital, Wikus has his unbandaged to reveal an alien claw. MNU’s mercenaries secret Wikus away to a hidden biolab where they’ve been conducting medical experiments on the “prawns.” The fluid cylinder is discovered and confiscated by MNU scientists.
Piet Smit oversees a battery of weapons tests where Wikus is made to fire alien weapons successfully. A doctor announces that Wikus’ DNA is the perfect balance between alien and human and that hisbody must be harvested for MNU to access the alien weapon technology. Smit gives the approval and leaves to create a fictional account of the above to Tania; meanwhile, Wikus pries loose from his captors and escapes from MNU.
Midpoint: Wikus returns to D9, “the only place he knew no one would ever come looking for him,” now a fugitive.
Bad Guys Close In: Wikus’ transformation continues; he scarfs down cat food only to find his teeth are falling out. After a disheartening phone call from Tania (“I don’t want you to hold me again”), Wikus attempts to chop off his new alien arm. When MNU’s helicopters swarm over D9, Wikus takes cover in Christopher Johnson’s shack. Christopher sees Wikus’ claw hand and knows Wikus has come into contact with the alien fluid.
Christopher helps Wikus hide in a secret compartment below the shack. This secret compartment is actually the command module of the mother ship, which has remained hidden for 20 years.
Christopher and Wikus strike a deal: they’ll retrieve the cylinder from MNU and rejoin the mother ship, where Christopher can restore Wikus’ arm. Wikus continues to morph, now showing patches of black alien exoskeleton under his skin. “We’re the same,” Christopher’s son tells him. Wikus curses the child and maintains he’s nothing like the “prawns.”
Wikus goes to Obesandje to strike a deal for alien weaponry, but Obesandje attempts to take him captive and chop off his alien arm so that he can eat it. In the scuffle, Wikus latches onto an alien firearm and blasts his way out. Christopher hides his son, and, with Wikus, journeys to MNU. Armed with alien weaponry, they blast their way into MNU and head for the biolab to recover the lost cylinder. Christopher learns the biolab has been experimenting on aliens, destroying alien fetuses in utero, and other horrors. Wikus retrieves the cylinder and they escape in an armored vehicle and return to the command module.
In possession of the precious fuel needed to get to the mother ship, Christopher changes the deal. He must return home, and gather troops to save his people trapped on earth. He promises Wikus that he will return to heal him in three years. Furious, Wikus clubs Christopher and attempts to start the command module himself, with the help of Christopher’s son. Meanwhile, Koobus and the MNU goons capture Christopher, as Wikus and the child liftoff in the buried capsule.
All Is Lost: Koobus and the MNU cowboys blast the capsule and Wikus crashlands back in District 9.
Dark Night of the Soul: MNU agents pull Wikus from the wrecked capsule and take him aboard an armored vehicle. Christopher is placed aboard a second vehicle to be taken to MNU and destroyed.
Break Into 3: Obesandje’s men ambush the motorcade and take Wikus prisoner. He’s no longer fully human, nor is he alien. He is trapped, alone — and seemingly, without hope.
Finale: MNU troops surround the Nigerian gang’s compound. A huge firefight breaks out while Obesandje prepares to sever and eat Wikus’ alien arm. Christopher’s son manages to reactivate all the alien devices, including an oversized robotic body armor suit, which blasts the Nigerians.
Koobus and his goons pull Christopher out of the transport and beat him for information. Wikus climbs inside the bodysuit and leaves Christopher behind –then, in an act of compassion, he has a change of heart and returns to help him. Wikus’ eye has turned into a wide, yellow disc – he is more alien than human now – he sees things from the alien point of view.
Wikus provides cover for Christopher to get back to the command module, but is attacked by Koobus and the cowboys. He must make his last stand. Koobus fires upon Wikus and destroys the body suit.
Koobus pulls Wikus from the rubble — before he can finish him off, he is surrounded by aliens who rip Koobus to shreds. Wikus watches as the command module rejoins with the mother ship and the giant spacecraft casts off. At the conclusion, the “documentary” exposes MNU’s secret agenda to the world.
Final Image: Wikus, now completely alien, stands atop a pile of rubble, in the chaos of what was once District 9. With care and precision, he carves yet another flower out of a piece of trash.
Do you have a “take” on “District 9”? Feel free to leave it in the Comments section below!
- Captain Perry
I’m going to coment because “We Cats” are in this thing together.I say it’s a “Monster in the House”
It could be MITH or even ROP. Definately a Dude with a Problem. Then again is it Fool Triumphant only with a twist in the end. Instead of triumphant he ends up destroyed as a human. But he definatley went through a change. Loved the film. So ripe for a sequel.
I’d go with Fool Triumphant for Wikus and the A story,
-Wikus is the innocent and gentle Fool
-MNU is the establishment coming to Wikus to ask him to evict the prawns
-Wikus trasmutates into a prawn hybrid and fights on their side to evict humans from District 9 long enough to allow the mother ship to escape
B Story is DWAP
-prawn Chris and his son are Innocent Heroes searching rubble and garbage
-the sudden event is finding the fuel cannister
-it’s life or death struggle to get back to the command module as the MNU eviction forces zero in on prawns; if they don’t make it back to the command module to get the mother ship flight-ready, the tribe will be systematically destroyed
A & B Stories cross when the prawn scavengers come across Wikus after Wikus has been injured and sprayed with the mutagenic fuel and is running from his own team of eviction troops
the Innocent Fool joins the Innocent Heroes while he completes his transmutation, and joins in the life or death struggle to free the prawns from subjugation or extinction by humans
Great thoughts from all!
We think that it is classic DWAP!
1) We have a protagonist – Wikus – who is an innocent dragged unwittingly into the “mess”.
2) We have a “sudden event” – the expulsion of the black material into Wikus’ eyes, which drags him – and us – into the New World, and his journey.
3) There is a life or death battle at stake. Definitely for Wikus, then for the prawns, and ultimately (perhaps) for the world.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can get caught up in fantastic characters or elements of stories; sometimes these elements can make me feel a “different” genre than what is truly at heart. So, I try to ask myself – who is the protagonist? What is his/her journey? What are the obstacles in the way?
If I can narrow it all down to those three questions, then I’m usually able to define. Usually!
But if you have a different take than ours, please feel free to post it!
- Al Rodriguez
It’s a terrific transformation — a complete metamorphosis — for Wikus, spiritual and physical. At the story’s beginning, he has his “heart of gold,” but he is at best inconsiderate of the aliens (at worst, he’s a happy abortionist as he “pops” the alien pupas and torches them with a flamethrower). But as he changes physically, he is still clinging to his identity as self, and keeping the alien outside as Other: “We’re not the same.” He will help Christopher only so much as it helps himself. But in the finale, he truly feels empathy for the Other, and basically martyrs himself (watch the movie again; when he’s wearing the giant robot outfit, he falls three times on his own road to Calvary as he provides cover for Christopher) to save the aliens he once terminated and barely tolerated. Finally, his identification with the alien through physical transformation is complete, bringing him around full circle to his “heart of gold.”
I agree it’s classic Dude with a Problem, though he’s a somewhat nerdy, even buffoonish “dude.” “Fool with a Problem?” ;)
Love District 9! One of the best of 2009.
Great work breaking this down, but I’m confused about some of the beats listed here. To be a Break into 2, doesn’t Wickus have to make a proactive choice to move into Act 2 with a clear goal? Wickus getting sprayed in the face is just something that happens TO him, right? More like a catalyst?
Wouldn’t the Break into 2 be Wikus escaping from MNU and returning to D9? It’s the first time he does anything active.
Isn’t MIDPOINT where Wikus and Christopher team up?
In this case, wouldn’t the ACT 3 break be when Wikus climbs inside the bodysuit and fights back?
What do you think?
- Al Rodriguez
Really good points, Jack.
I agree with you about Wikus having to make a proactive step into the new world. One could argue that he’s taking a proactive step by attempting to hide the fact that he was sprayed (“You can just cut that, can’t you?”) and doing whatever he can to maintain the authority he was granted in the catalyst. If you look at it in Hero’s Journey terms, Wikus’ ordinary world is that of the pencil-pusher. He’s given this new authority, this new opportunity, and takes it without fully understanding the ramifications of the job (a mild “refusal of the call,” perhaps, when he backs down from Koobus). He’s definitely “crossed the first threshold” when he gets sprayed in the face — there’s no going back to the way things were, much as Wikus would like to erase that moment from the video.
I’m still convinced that the act of returning to D9 in his altered state and as a fugitive marks the point on the arc where Wikus has gone from powerful to powerless, which technically can be seen as the end of the Fun and Games beat. There’s a marked transition — night to morning — with Wikus waking in D9 that makes it feel like a “new game,” and an easily marked Midpoint.
I think, however, you might be right about the Break into 3. One can see the ambush by the Nigerian gang as part of the Dark Night of the Soul, with the Break coming as the alien child reactivates the alien devices remotely and frees Wikus from their grasp, setting up the final showdown between Wikus and the cowboys where Wikus has to choose between his own self-interest and the well-being of his (now fellow?) aliens.
Great thoughts… something else to think about.
We consider D9 to be classic Dude With A Problem.
One of the key elements of a DWAP is an “innocent” hero who is thrust unwittingly – or unwillingly – into a “new world.”
One of the greatest DWAP films is Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. If you take a good, hard look at Roger Thornhill, he does not take one proactive step until just past Midpoint. Only after he survives the ordeal in the field – and determines that Eve Kendall is “in” on the game against him, does he begin to take action. Up to that point, he simply reacts as the pawn of the other agents – good and bad.
Keeping that in mind, it does make perfect sense – and a compelling journey – for Wikus’ active state of being delay as it does in this wonderful DWAP story!
Awesome, Anne and Al… thanks for the info.
In the script I’m working on it doesn’t make sense for my hero to take a proactive step until a little later as well… so it’s refreshing to hear about the hero’s late pro-active step in a DWAP.
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“District 9” is next to “Up in the Air” the best film of last year.
Why? It perfectly hits all the beats of the BS2 as the breakdown
so aptly shows.
The film is a political, philosophical and social commentary of
our perverted times – and next to that: it´s unbelievably funny
and entertaining and emotional. VFX are not the issue here, but:
to me they beat “Avatar” in terms of efficiency.
So: I hope this movie grabs a view Oscars. Highly deserved.