Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Neill Blomkamp: District 9

In Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi world aliens landed in South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg, in 1989. While international governments argued about what to do with the unwanted guests, unable to return home in their disabled ship, the gigantic exo-skeletoned, shrimp-like creatures were confined to a makeshift refugee camp known as District 9. Wanting to maintain the status quo for their human residents, Johannesburg's officials adopted a strict -- and brutally enforced -- policy of segregation. Public transport and road crossings are reserved for the use of humans only, and those who spot aliens outside of their designated zone are encouraged to call a hotline (1-866-666-6001) manned by a private security firm called Multi-National United (you should keep their digits on speed dial -- just in case).

Blomkamp's nightmarish District 9 is a fictionalized reflection of the real horrors of District 6, a Cape Town municipality that was designated for "whites only" by South Africa's apartheid government in 1966. Removal of the non-white population began two years later. A total of 60,000 people were forcibly relocated to the Cape Flats, apartheid's dusty and bleak dumping ground 16 miles away. Similarly, as Blomkamp's faux documentary-style film begins, Multi-National United is charged with the task of clearing District 9 and relocating the area's resident aliens to a new government-mandated camp.

In his debut feature, Blomkamp skillfully portrays the human/alien apartheid society of Johannesburg in a hyper-real way, which sets this film apart from the bulk of sci-fi canon. With District 9, the South African born writer, director and visual effects artist takes the aliens of his beloved fantasy genre out of their usual star wars environment and has them do battle with the mundane pencil-pushers responsible for compliance in a segregated society similar to that of Blomkamp's youth. However, District 9 may never have happened if it wasn't for a more traditional space-based sci-fi project that Blomkamp was slated to helm.

At one point a film version of the first person shooter Halo was set to be Blomkamp's first feature, but the project got shot down while still in development. Microsoft and 20th Century Fox had charged Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson with the task of bringing the computer game to the big screen. Jackson in turn called on Blomkamp, an award winning commercial director who was creating quite a stir in the advertising world thanks to his award-winning visual effects. Though a series of three shorts were released in 2007 (collectively known as Landfall), the film version of Halo ultimately imploded. Jackson and Blomkamp forged a bond thanks to the project however, and when their work on Halo came to an end they turned to a six minute movie Blomkamp had produced back in 2005 as inspiration for their next project.

Click HERE to read my interview with Blomkamp at in which he talks about the harsh realities behind District 9.

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