'District 9' Pits Aliens Against South Africans

"District 9's" director and star share inspirations for the thriller, out today.

August 14, 2009, 11:22 AM

Aug. 14, 2009 -- The movie trailer for "District 9" is ominous and thrilling.

Twenty-eight years ago, an alien spaceship arrived over Johannesburg, South Africa, and never left. In the movie, aliens and humans have been living side by side ever since, although not necessarily harmoniously.

Aliens and South Africa made perfect sense to director Neill Blomkamp and star Sharlto Copley, who sat down recently with ABC News Now's "Popcorn With Peter Travers."

"Being a sci-fi nut and being from Johannesburg, it is one of the most interesting cities in the world," said Blomkamp, who, like Copley, is South African. "There are levels of it that are science fiction. Rich gated communities with impoverished masses living around them."

The aliens are refugees. 'Prawns' is the nickname given to them because of their physical resemblance to giant two-legged shrimp. They're set up in a make-shift ghetto called District 9. They're not allowed to leave because humans, so far, have not been able to figure out how to use their highly advanced weaponry. But the world's nations are arguing over what to do with them.

The aliens' welfare is subcontracted to the Multi-National United (MNU), whose objective is to figure out the devices. Their South African field operative, Wikus Van De Merwe (played by Copley), while going door to door evicting the aliens to an even smaller ghetto, contracts an alien virus, which changes his DNA, making him the missing link to unlocking alien technology.

Wikus, unlike the MNU, has a redemptive side, much like the Afrikaans in South African politics. Copley says, "The Afrikaner is usually very much typecast as a villain, people tend to forget that the majority of Afrikaners voted to make it happen [the change in government]."

The racial tension between humans and the alien refugees mirrors the racial tension in South Africa, most recently with the collapse of neighboring Zimbabwe, which resulted in the influx of illegal Zimbabwean refugees. "The blacks in South Africa living in poverty now have to contend with poor immigrants resulting in black on black xenophobia," Blomkamp said.

When Blomkamp and his team arrived in South Africa to film "District 9," the racial tension exploded. "We woke up to news headlines of a rampaging murderous group, who had lynched and clubbed to death Zimbabwean immigrants," he said, describing it as a "live grenade" tossed into South Africa.

"District 9's" refugee aliens are insect-like humanoids, who create termite-like hives. "They have a different structure to their society than we do, which is engrained in them biologically," Blomkamp said.

He said he gave them some human characteristics because they "need to have a facial structure that the human psyche could empathize with."

Despite the political undertones, "District 9" is not a movie that lectures. Action sequences are fast paced and exciting. Explosions are plentiful. But "District 9" does not look like a typical sci-fi movie. "We presented most of the footage as news documentary or security camera footage," Blomkamp said. adding, "As Copley's character started to go through character arcs, we incorporated film."

Blomkamp has high praise for his childhood friend, whom he cast as the star despite his lack of acting experience: "He's relentless. He'll do take after take after take. If we get the one I want, he'll still go, 'What about this? What about this?'"

Copley said Blomkamp made the experience easy for him as a director.

"District 9" was born from the demise of "Halo," which was based on a sci-fi futuristic video game published by Microsoft Game Studios. Renowned "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson asked Blomkamp to direct Halo for him. But the project collapsed because of fights between Universal and Fox.

"It wasn't Microsoft's fault," Blomkamp said.

He was devastated by the film's collapse, but rallied when Jackson told him to "take all the momentum of this and make 'District 9,'" which Jackson would then produce. "It worked well for me," Copley said.

"District 9" was the hit of Comic-Con, to the relief of Blomkamp. "I went straight from making the film to Comic-Con," he said of the annual pop culture convention in San Diego. "You reach a point when you have no context. You don't know if it's good or not. Going to Comic-Con and being received well was a giant sign of relief because they're the most important audience. I felt good."

Copley agreed. "It was the first time I watched the whole film together with fans who would kill you if it's wrong. I survived the experience. People went crazy. You knew they were liking it. We kind of got swamped by people who wanted autographs."

This was particularly gratifying for Copley, who had to endure exhausting and gross scenes while filming the movie. "As I was lying in a sewer with real feces, I asked Neill 'when does the fame part start?" Copley said.

The fame part begins now. "District 9" opens today in theaters nationwide.

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