District 9: Superb Sci-Fi Thriller Produced by Peter Jackson–Sleeper of the Summer?

Please watch featurette about the making of District 9 in our new Video section 

Peter Jackson presents in association with TriStar Pictures and Block/Hanson a Wingnut Films Production, District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp and co-written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell.  The film is produced by Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, and co-producer is Philippa Boyens.  District 9 will be released by Sony nationwide on August 14, 2009.


“Neill Blomkamp is a terrifically exciting young director,” says producer Peter Jackson, who shepherds Blomkamp’s debut feature film, District 9.  “We were considering a production of Halo, based on the video game.  That movie never happened, but we loved working with Neill so much that when he pitched us District 9, we decided it would be fun to turn his idea into a feature film.”


In District 9, Blomkamp deftly creates a film with an original vision and unique method of telling its story.  After cutting his teeth as a visual effects artist and director of music videos and commercials, Blomkamp makes his feature film directorial debut, drawing inspiration from classic science fiction films as well as the Johannesburg of his youth (Blomkamp was born and raised there before relocating to Canada).  The result is a film that breaks ground with a new, thrilling voice.


From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended District 9 to be unconventional and to blur the lines between filmmaking styles. “Essentially, the film bounces from our story, which is obviously fictional, to a sort of ultra?real mode,” explains Blomkamp.  Dramatic scenes, mockumentary footage, real news video obtained from the South African Broadcasting Corporation – “it’s all part of the same story,” Blomkamp continues.  “The movie fluctuates between something that feels like a film and something that feels bizarrely real.”


Alternate History


“District 9 is set in an alternate history,” says Jackson.  “Imagine over 20 years ago, over a million alien refugees arrived on earth in a derelict spaceship.  They are benign – more than that, they are helpless.  They can’t even feed themselves and have no particular desire to do anything.  They come to Johannesburg, of all places, and the government doesn’t know what to do with them, so the aliens end up in a township very similar to Soweto.  And for over 20 years, humans have been trying to solve the alien problem.” 


Because “District 9” is set in South Africa, some may suggest that the film is a direct metaphor for the many problems that country has faced over the years.  The filmmakers say that though it’s impossible to divorce the film from its setting, no direct metaphor is intended.  “In South Africa, we have to deal with issues that generally people around the world try to sweep under the rug,” says Sharlto Copley, who plays the lead character, Wikus.


Wikus as Hero


He’s an ordinary guy who likes to wield power in a bureaucratic way. That’s why MNU promotes him– they want a guy who will do things in an orderly, proper way. “Wikus has a very bad day,” says Peter Jackson.  “Not only does he contract a mysterious disease that starts changing his DNA, but what makes it worse is that he becomes the key to unlocking the alien weaponry.  For a moment in time, Wikus becomes the most important person on the planet.”


Another subtle clue to character might go over the heads of most Americans, but plays into a kind of bigotry that South Africans would know.  Wikus is Afrikaaner, which is perceived by some in South Africa as a kind of a redneck.  I decided that I would play Koobus as English, a man who has spent his military service out of country.  Even at the outset, in every way, he sees himself as being superior to Wikus.”


From the very beginning, Blomkamp intended that District 9 would stand on its own–influenced by the great science fiction films that came before it, but unique in vision and groundbreaking in method. “District 9” breaks the rules most effectively in its style of shooting, which, by the end of the film, has audiences wondering what’s real and what’s entirely imagined. 


Unique Perspective

“Because Neill Blomkamp is South African, he brings a unique perspective to this story,” says Peter Jackson.  The filmmakers always intended to shoot District 9 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  While the story could as easily have been set in any metropolitan city in any developing country, only Johannesburg has the unique African flavor that Blomkamp is both familiar with and inspired by. 


For District 9, Blomkamp envisioned a harsh, somewhat apocalyptic vision of the city.  While keeping the authentic South African elements, he has also turned up the dial to create a fictional Johannesburg as a bleak and relentlessly grey place.  To achieve that, the filmmakers shot the film in the dry winter months.  In summer, the area is lush, green, and beautiful, but in District 9, not so much.  


The filmmakers found the perfect location in Tshiawelo, on the outskirts of Soweto.  People here had lived in shacks on a landfill for years; as filming was about to commence, the local authorities were moving them to state subsidized housing some 20km away and tearing down the shacks.  The production bought up the shacks that remained, fenced off the area, and created a controlled environment in which to shoot.


WETA Workshop

One of the most appealing aspects of District 9 for Blomkamp was the chance to bring his own vision of extraterrestrial life to the screen.  
The development of these creatures was an organic process with input from Blomkamp as well as the designers at WETA Workshop.  “The basic idea was that they have an insect exo-skeleton crossed with that of a crustacean,” says On-Set Effects Supervisor Joe Dunckley.  “They have sinewy, delicate joints between the hard shell areas, similar to a crab or crawfish. They’re meant to be entirely disgusting.  They secrete some sort resin, so we used various forms of goo to give them that high shine and life?like appearance.”   


The aliens are largely a marriage between visual effects and practical effects as their physical design – thin waists and dogleg lower limbs – would be difficult to animate otherwise.  “Little C.J. will be entirely visual effects in the film, but we built a realistic dummy made out of silicone for visual effects reference,” explains Dunckley.  Blomkamp elected to use a mixture of visual effects and prosthetics in creating the aliens simply because while the prostheses provide a good point of reference while shooting, many of the design elements as well as movement is better achieved with visual effects.  “These creatures have extremely thin waists and they are very difficult to create practically.”