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Director Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" Now on DVD

Who would have thought that this quirky, controversial, though sometimes uneven film, District 9, could have knocked a tentpole picture like Paramount's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra off the top of the charts after its first week. But besides being a classic science-fiction tale in the best sense of the term, it has two other charmed words behind it — Peter Jackson -- and as a result, it not only had huge success in theaters but it will most likely have successful sales now that the film is coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009.

After complaining that there's a paucity of fresh ideas coming out of Hollywood, the Oscar-winning Lord of The Rings-leader put his imprimatur on District 9 as a producer. Nonetheless, this feature is thoroughly the creation of 29-year-old South Africa-born writer-director Neill Blomkamp, based on his 2005 short.

Twenty-eight years before the "now" of this near-future thriller, crustacean-like humanoids inhabit a vast galaxy-spanning spaceship that appears in Earth's atmosphere. Not there to make formal first contact, the "prawns" (as they become labeled) arrive here because of some unexplained (at least to humans) mishap that forces their ship to hover motionless above Johannesburg. After some debate, humans helicopter up to the ship and cut their way in to find thousands of aliens starving and stinking up their vessel.

Relocated to Earth, they are crowded into a small neighborhood called District 9 where, over the ensuing 20 years, it becomes a shunned slum (a clear reference to District 6, the Johannesburg slum created by the once-ruling Afrikaans as a ghetto for its Black population).

The obvious metaphor is there, made even more so, when the South African government of this near-future's present decides to re-locate the one million-plus "prawn" population to a decidedly smaller, more isolated camp — in tandem with MNU, a corporation running the alien ghetto while secretly trying to tap them for their technology and biology. Though humans and aliens can somehow communicate — humans can sort of decipher their gutteral clicks and snaps (it sounds a bit like the real Xhosa language) — there's a huge misapprehension and resistance by the aliens to their forced move.

Applying a range of extrapolative techniques to explain this alien society with its heirarchy of common citizens and elite technologists, the film shows how they survive, and hope to cope with a post-20th century South Africa. Blomkamp does a good job in delineating this complex alien culture as one of its scientists plots to get them off Earth. Thrown into the mix is the Nigerian criminal gang that exploits the perimeter of this ghetto and its denizens — much like it happens in South Africa today.

While the film challenges expectation and grapples with first contact, it humorously exposes human foibles in an oddly skewed mirror-like fashion. It also offers a cool spaceship, funky aliens and great weapons. Loaded with homages to tons of sci-fi movies and ideas, the film breezily makes its mark on this genre.

Q: Why did you chose this direction for your first feature film rather than make a more obvious, socio-political film about the same issues?

NB: I grew up in Johannesburg. The genesis for the idea came out of the fact that I just love science fiction and Johannesburg, so I wanted to see science fiction mixed with Johannesburg. It didn't come about like, "I want to talk about these issues that had an effect on me when I was growing up, like segregation and apartheid and everything else."

The second you put something in Johannesburg, you start raising these issues. Before [I thought of] District 9, I felt like half of my mind wanted to make some serious film about these topics and the other half wanted to make a bloody genre film. And then I thought maybe I'll be able to do both. So there's never been a second in my mind where it might have been set somewhere else, because Joburg came first.

Q: You focused on one character throughout the film — an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (
Sharlto Copley). Why did you identify with him; is some part of him, you, or someone you know or were taking the piss out of?

NB: I was definitely taking a piss [British slang for making fun of someone]. Afrikaaners don't occur that often in movies, but when they do, they're usually tough militaristic guys. They are the guys that created the apartheid and stuff. So there's an image of what the Afrikaans male is. The reality in Johannesburg is that lots of those kind of guys work for massive state-owned companies, and are much more bureaucratic, pencil-pushing dudes.

I loved the idea of having a guy who is comfortable in his life and with what his company was doing, who always says "yes" to whatever the company asks for, and genuinely believes it is in the best interest of everyone to do what the company wants. It was awesome to take someone like that, who is comfortable in their position, and have them turn into the thing they are oppressing. It's mostly a satirical take on that kind of character, which is what I like about District 9.

Q: Do you find it amazing how alien South Africa is to most people?

NB: I still don't have a good handle on how alien it is. Johannesburg is weird, because half of it is like Los Angeles. It feels like just wealthy parts of LA. But half of it is severe slummy, something like Rio De Janiero or something. So it's kind of weird, because it's both happening at the same time.

Americans will easily understand the company, the way it's being promoted, and most of the white parts of South African culture. But it's the real bad place, the stricken townships, that I didn't know how they would take. They may take that as being very alien, but in the best-case scenario, they'll be interested to see science fiction occurring in that setting.

Q: How much experience did you have with the townships? Where are you living now?

NB: I left just before I turned 18. I went to Canada in 1987 — Vancouver — so up until I moved at the end of grade 12, I had exposure to the townships but it was limited. Maybe once every six months to a year, I would be there for some reason. Then when I went to Canada, I started going back to Johannesburg every year. That's when I got seriously interested in it, and it was a very different type of thing.

I lived there when I was younger, and it was under apartheid; when I was coming back from Canada it wasn't. It was more the stuff you'd see on television, the way blacks were segregated, and you'd see the armored vehicles going in — this oppressive thing that's happening next door to me. It was almost society from a white kid's point of view when I lived there. From 1997 onwards it was like going in the townships, and then I became more and more interested in it.

I never viewed that interest as connected to science fiction. That was just one part of my mind that was interested in this topic, and the world of films was in another pocket of my mind and very separate.

Q: I see how alien your experiences are from even South Africa so I thought the Nigerians added resonance. And it seems you wanted to give a deeper mythology to all three cultures: the South African, the Alien, and then adding the Nigerian to bring in a sort of African point of view.

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