'District 9' Pits Aliens Against South Africans

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

ByABC News
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."