Back in the summer of 2008, a small film crew descended on a slum in South Africa and spent three months shooting documentary-style footage of a society in the midst of upheaval. Poverty, prejudice, government intolerance — the cameras captured all the great human injustices. And some nonhuman ones, too.
“District 9,” which opens on Aug. 14, may well turn out to be the most unlikely sci-fi blockbuster of the season. It has no stars. It was made for relatively little money ($30 million) by a 29-year-old South African-born director whom nobody’s ever heard of, Neill Blomkamp. And its action-packed plot is tinged with a surprising moral intelligence, as if a Paul Verhoeven film got a rewrite from Nelson Mandela.
The movie, which is quite violent and R-rated, opens by laying out an extraordinary backstory: Decades ago, a massive spaceship appeared not over New York or Los Angeles, but Johannesburg. Rather than invade or lay waste to the city, the ship just parked there, motionless. Once the government got up the nerve to cut their way inside, they discovered the ship was filled with a million starving alien drones, helpless after their leaders had mysteriously died off. Despite a well-intentioned “creature rights” effort, the humans lose patience with the ravenous, often-violent aliens and segregate them into a ghetto called District 9.
As the present-day action begins, a venal corporation looking to profit from alien technology tasks a geeky emissary (newcomer Sharlto Copley) with evicting the creatures from their horrific shantytown and persuading them to move somewhere ... worse. That emissary’s life will never be the same. Neither will his limbs or his left eye, thanks to a brush with some funky alien matter.
Strange to say, but the most satisfying sci-fi thrill ride of the summer turns out to be sort of an apartheid allegory. “It’s an utterly original film,” says “District 9’s” single A-list name, producer Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”). “In an industry that’s looking to make movies out of every obscure TV show, or sequels, or videogames, you look at District 9 and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”
Actually, sci-fi has a long tradition of addressing social issues through metaphor, but Jackson is right — recent examples are hard to find. Unless those space robots that turn into muscle cars in “Transformers 2” are really a metaphor for the Algerian separatist movement, it’s been aeons since a sci-fi film made a point larger than Monday morning’s grosses (even J.J. Abrams’ relatively grown-up “Star Trek” didn’t get too weighty).
It’s been longer since a serious space-alien picture has been so riveting and fun. Part “Independence Day,” part “City of God,” “District 9” is a message movie that also happens to be packed with groundbreaking effects (the Prawns, as the tentacled aliens are called, look real enough to dip in cocktail sauce). Plus, it’s got plot twists that blow up all the old alien-invasion movie cliché and action sequences that trump most other cinema spectacles in theaters this summer — you know, the ones with budgets the size of TARP funds.
“I’m not trying to make something about apartheid that beats people over the head,” says Blomkamp. “I’m just trying to portray science fiction in a way that feels like it might have actually been real.”
‘Halo’ loss is summer movie season’s gain“District 9” wasn’t the movie Neill Blomkamp first set out to make with Peter Jackson. In 2006, Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, hired Blomkamp to shoot a $145 million big-screen adaptation of the videogame “Halo.” At that point, Blomkamp’s résumé consisted largely of visually stunning ads for Nike, Gatorade and Panasonic, plus a series of sci-fi shorts. But Jackson saw something worth nurturing. “Those short films and commercials were very eye-catching,” he says.
Blomkamp had a hard time believing his own hype. “I went from zero to a hundred in a few weeks,” he says. “It seemed insane.”
Unfortunately, his trajectory went south just as quickly. After months of work in New Zealand, the two studios co-producing “Halo,” Universal and Fox, pulled the plug, amid rumors that they doubted Blomkamp’s ability to handle an expensive tentpole movie. The decision devastated both Blomkamp and Jackson, who believed the rookie director had been scapegoated. (Another source close to the project says “Halo” was actually doomed by a power struggle between Fox and Universal. Neither studio would comment for this story.)
In any case, the episode reminded them how little control filmmakers have when a giant budget is on the line. “The day we were told ‘Halo’ wasn’t going to happen — it was a pretty black day,” Jackson says. “It’s happened to me two or three times in my career. But we decided to turn a defeat into victory as quickly as possible. We thought, Okay, let’s just make a cool movie, even if it’s not ‘Halo.’ One that we can control and not be at the whim of a studio.”
Within a week, Jackson had Blomkamp developing a feature inspired by one of the young director’s short films, a six-minute faux documentary called “Alive in Jo’burg,” about aliens living in a ghetto. This time Blomkamp, who was born in Johannesburg and moved to Vancouver when he was 18, felt free to make bolder creative decisions. “You’re not sweating blood because you think (the movie’s) gonna need to recoup all this money,” he says. “You can take risks.”
He decided to go for a cinema vérité approach in the extreme. Much of “District 9” looks as if it was shot on security cameras, or by TV news crews. And to further heighten the realism, Blomkamp had his actors improvise almost all of their dialogue. (The movie’s in English with a smattering of Alien.) Pushing his luck further still, he cast his old South African friend Sharlto Copley — who was a gifted improviser but had no feature acting experience — in the lead role of Wikus van de Merwe. Blomkamp says each of his decisions was made with a single goal in mind: “I wanted the film to be as un-Hollywood as possible.”
Getting down in the garbage dumpGiven where much of the movie was shot — a landfill — that wasn’t a huge problem. Copley spent much of his time on the set literally rolling around in garbage, acting opposite a guy in a motion-capture suit (one actor, Jason Cope, played the Prawns before they were re-created by CG).
Copley found his first feature-film experience to be pretty unromantic. “Scrounging through real trash to find a prop sandwich strategically placed in the middle of the stuff — it was brutal,” says the star, 35. “They’d have to comb the area before shooting just to pull the nails out.”
Blomkamp also found filming in his hometown tough. “The shoot was incredibly difficult, grueling as hell,” he says. “Johannesburg is just concrete and dust and burning fires and barbed wires and pollution. Even for the South Africans on the crew, it was seriously eye-opening.”
Thanks to a clever viral marketing campaign — “For Humans Only” signs plastered on bus stops in major U.S. cities — awareness about the movie began to build over the summer, while Blomkamp finished editing in South Africa.
Then, late last month, a print was flown to Comic-Con for a “secret” screening for well-placed fanboys and bloggers. The Internet lit up. CHUD.com: “Exciting, funny, gory, fun and heartbreaking.” Cinematical.com: “I haven’t been this moved by a film or a performance in quite some time.” Ain’t It Cool News: “District 9 is a landmark film.” Twitter was aflutter with raves for the film as well; even “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks tweeted positive word of mouth about the movie to her 220,000-plus followers. Comic-Con hadn’t generated so much buzz since Gerard Butler strapped on a codpiece for “300.”
That word of mouth has since spread far beyond the San Diego Convention Center. According to tracking reports, “District 9” has already generated more must-see interest among audiences than “Cloverfield” did prior to its own release (the J.J. Abrams-produced 2008 sci-fi flick, which also rode an underground wave, opened at $40 million).
There have been other auspicious indications as well — like talk of a “District 9” sequel. Jackson’s plate is pretty full these days, but he isn’t counting out the possibility. “Although,” he notes, “if I’ve done my job properly, Neill won’t need me anymore.”
As for Blomkamp, he’s clearly up for another. “I would do anything to go back to the world of ‘District 9’ again,” he says. “Or ‘District 10.’”
Introducing Sharlto Copley
How did a 35-year-old South African with virtually no acting experience end up the star of “District 9”? Well, it didn’t hurt that he’s been friends with director Neill Blomkamp forever.
Back when Sharlto Copley was a 20-year-old TV producer, he hired Blomkamp as a computer-graphics designer — despite the fact that he was only 14. “I gave Neill his first job,” Copley says. “And he’s certainly returned the favor.”
Initially, Blomkamp asked Copley to improvise a character for some “District 9” test footage. His performance was enough to convince the director — and producer Peter Jackson — that he could play the lead.
Blomkamp always knew his buddy had hidden talents: “He can become whatever character he wants. He once convinced one of his friends he was in the witness protection program.”
Prior to “District 9,” Copley worked in a variety of fields in South Africa, where he still resides with his girlfriend of many years. He has directed commercials, music videos, and short films. He once even owned a talent agency.
In person, Copley is warm, funny, voluble — and as surprised as anyone that he’s suddenly being photographed at places like the New York premiere of “Julie & Julia.” During the arduous “D9” shoot, Copley used to joke, “When does the fame start?” Right about now.