In the documentary-style sci-fi thriller “District 9,” which arrives in theaters today, hundreds of thousands of aliens become stranded in South Africa after their massive spaceship comes to a standstill above downtown Johannesburg.
Unable to fix the craft, this massive population of tentacle-waving, exoskeleton-sheathed visitors eventually outstays its welcome; they become reviled by humans for burdening the country’s welfare system even though all they really want to do is go home.
Corralled into District 9, a rubbish-strewn refugee camp, they are segregated from the general populace by barbed wire, denied such basic necessities as running water and denigrated by native earthlings as “prawns” for their resemblance to Sasquatch-sized shellfish.
One of the hottest properties at San Diego’s recent Comic-Con, the film wowed its fanboy premiere audience and set the Internet abuzz with reports that “District 9” is the real deal: one of the most original sci-fi films to come along in years.
Given the movie’s real-life setting amid Soweto’s teeming townships and its segregationist signage – “For humans only! Non-humans banned!” – it’s impossible not to correlate the aliens’ predicament with recent South African history.
And that’s no accident. Call “District 9” the world’s first autobiographical alien apartheid movie.
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg during an era of white minority rule.
“Blacks, for the most part, were kept separate from whites,” recalls Blomkamp, 29. “And where there was overlap, there were very clearly delineated hierarchies of where people were allowed to go. Those ideas wound up in every pixel in ‘District 9.’ “
Despite more than 600 computer-enhanced shots of bizarro aliens, high-tech weaponry and crazy spaceship blastoffs, he managed to shoot the movie on a modest $30 million budget.
Sony’s decision to roll out “District 9” in the midst of the ultracompetitive summer movie lineup boils down to three words: “Peter Jackson presents.”
Jackson, the Oscar-winning writer-director behind the blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” franchise, was key in actualizing Blomkamp’s vision for the film, producing it and arranging its independent financing.
” ‘District 9’ is not reflective of any movie that I can imagine,” Jackson says. “It’s really very original, which I love about it, and that’s totally Neill.”
Before there was a “District 9,” Blomkamp was attached to “Halo,” a planned $145 million movie adaptation of the popular space age shoot-‘em-up video game.
In 2005, Jackson signed on to write and produce what would have been a joint production between 20th Century Fox and Universal, with the intention of hiring “someone young and new” to direct.
Blomkamp submitted a show reel that included a six-minute short film, “Alive in Joburg” – a mockumentary depicting space alien refugees living in segregation in a South African township.
He landed the job and moved from his home in Vancouver, B.C., to New Zealand to begin work at Jackson’s production facility, Weta Workshop.
It represented the culmination of more than a decade of work for Blomkamp.
“When I was 14 or 15, I got into 3-D animation on the computer my parents bought me,” he says. “I was toying with practical effects. Prosthetics and in-camera effects. Models and photography. I knew I wanted to be involved in all that.”
But after months of preproduction on “Halo,” the project fell apart. Blomkamp was ready to go home when a conversation with Jackson’s partner and collaborator, Fran Walsh, changed the course of his career.
“She had the idea to turn ‘Alive in Joburg’ into a feature,” recalls Blomkamp. “I was like, ‘That’s awesome!’ “
Says Jackson: “The very next day, all the artists switched from ‘Halo’ to ‘District 9,’ which, we didn’t have a name for at that stage. … We didn’t have a studio involved so we funded the development of the movie ourselves.”
Blomkamp kept costs down, in part, by casting his childhood friend and frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley – a writer-director-producer with limited experience in front of the camera – in the film’s lead role.
He portrays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling field operative for MNU, a giant corporate conglomerate that wants to relocate the aliens from their shanties to an extraterrestrial ghetto.
When Wikus accidentally contaminates himself with a mysterious alien biological fluid during an MNU sweep, however, his life unravels and his allegiances shift.
As filming commenced in one of Soweto’s poorest neighborhoods, reality intervened.
“We woke up to smoke on the horizon with army choppers,” Blomkamp says. “South African groups had started to lynch and burn and machete these other groups. Mass murder was happening within a few kilometers of us.
“I felt like I was stomping around like some uncoordinated, goofy, first-time filmmaker wrestling with a topic that was now highly, highly serious.”
Copley says Blomkamp channeled that heightened sense of consequence into what appears on the screen.
“He flows with things more than anybody I have worked with and gets what he needs out of a situation,” Copley says.
“It’s really something to see. Here’s a guy who has an incredible artist head space. And he’s following his emotions into it.”