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Neill Blomkamp's 'District 9' wins over fanboys and Peter Jackson

The science fiction film is about aliens who get stranded in South Africa.

August 02, 2009|Chris Lee

In the docu-style, sci-fi thriller "District 9," which arrives in theaters Aug. 14, 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 aliens 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 that calls to mind Mumbai's septic squalor, captured to striking effect in "Slumdog Millionaire" -- they are segregated from the general populace by barbed wire. There, the film's sentient yet excitable aliens are denied such basic necessities as running water and are denigrated by native earthlings as "prawns" for their resemblance to Sasquatch-sized shellfish.

Given the film's real-life setting amid Soweto's teeming townships and its segregationist signage -- "For humans only! Non-humans banned!" read placards in the movie -- 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; later, memories of the apartheid government's social divisiveness and authoritarian control became "the most powerful influence" in shaping his creative vision.

"It all had a huge impact on me: the white government and the paramilitary police -- the oppressive, iron-fisted military environment," Blomkamp said over breakfast recently in a Santa Monica hotel. He appeared boyish, fresh-faced in jeans and a button-down shirt, his hair spiky with product, while exuding a preternatural sense of focus. "Blacks, for the most part, were kept separate from whites. And where there was overlap, there were very clearly delineated hierarchies of where people were allowed to go."

He continued: "Those ideas wound up in every pixel in 'District 9.' "

Arriving as one of the hottest properties at San Diego's recent Comic-Con, the movie wowed its fanboy premiere audience and set the TweetDeck alight with reports that "District 9" is the real deal: one of the most original sci-fi films to come along in years.

It should boggle the imagination of anyone who sees the movie to discover, then, that for all its narrative assuredness and engrossing neo-realism, "District 9" is the debut feature of a director who has not yet reached the tender age of 30. Moreover, despite showcasing more than 600 computer-enhanced shots of bizarro aliens, high-tech weaponry and crazy spaceship blastoffs -- much of it shot in cinema verite-style that one-ups last year's "Cloverfield" -- Blomkamp, 29, managed to shoot "District 9" on a modest $30-million budget.

Those merits aside, however, Sony's decision to roll out the film in the midst of summer's ultracompetitive movie lineup boils down to three words attached to "District 9": "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 "District 9," producing the film, arranging its independent financing and helping Blomkamp iron out kinks in the script.

"He saw South African society -- both the good and bad of the society there -- and he wanted to put a science fiction spin on what he witnessed growing up because he's a science fiction geek," said Jackson, who had traveled from New Zealand to Comic-Con primarily to sing Blomkamp's praises. "I really like the idea that here was a guy who was making a movie based on life experience, not just on some movie that he was a fan of. 'District 9' is not reflective of any movie that I can imagine. It's really very original, which I love about it, and that's totally Neill."

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'Halo' effect

But 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 of the same name. In 2005, Jackson signed on to write the script for what would have been a joint production between 20th Century Fox and Universal, also serving as its producer with the intention of hiring "someone young and new" to direct.

Universal's production chief at that time, Mary Parent, was in charge of vetting filmmakers for the project and presented Blomkamp's show reel to Jackson. It included a six-minute short film, "Alive in Joburg" -- a mockumentary depicting space alien refugees living in segregation in a South African township.

Blomkamp landed the job and pulled up stakes from his home in Vancouver, Canada, to move to New Zealand and set to work at Jackson's production facility, Weta Workshop. "He was just what we were after," Jackson said, "one of these guys who lives and breathes film."

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