'District 9' Director and Star Chat at Alamo

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District 9

[Warning: some of this content may spoil the film for you. Caution is advised.]

This has been a good summer for sci-fi fans, with three outstanding, classic style sci-fi films to hit screens across the country: Star Trek, Moon and now District 9, which opens on Friday. Ain't it Cool News hosted a special screening of District 9 with director Neill Blomkamp and star Sharlto Copley that featured one of the longest, and arguably one of the best Q&As in Austin in a long, long time.

Both Blomkamp and Copley were willing to answer questions for almost an hour. With most Q&As running 15 minutes, this was a rare treat. No one in the standing-room-only crowd left when the end credits started, and the first to leave the theater only missed the last 2-3 questions, and not just because those asking questions were rewarded with a commemorative t-shirt. One lucky audience member, who asked the final question, received an autographed rendering of the alien ship.

Set in the Johannesburg, South Africa area 20 years after an alien vessel has stopped over the city, District 9 is the story of a corporate stooge responsible for overseeing a mass eviction of the aliens, pejoratively known as "prawns" because of their resemblance to crustaceans.

Blomkamp, who has a background in visual effects, had been set to direct Halo, and then was given an opportunity by Peter Jackson to direct his own project when Halo fell through. His choice was to direct a feature film based on his short Alive in Joburg, in which his friend Copley is cast in a completely different role.

Copley, who has been involved in the entertainment industry for years, was not a professional actor, but was convinced to take the lead role in District 9. Copley admitted he didn't realize quite what he was in for when he agreed to do it.

The dialogue was largely unscripted, with the actors improvising to get to the required narrative marks. Copley demonstrated his prowess at this when one audience member asked about a certain xenophliac plot point, going off on the question as one about a highly illegal act. Copley's real speaking voice (and appearance) was very different from that of his character, Wikus.

There is extensive, deliberate detail in every scene, which Blomkamp is understandably proud of. Not only is the choice of color for the guns deliberate ("White" and "Friendly"), the same guns are also worn and chipped, suggesting a great deal of use. The shantytown look of the district is authentic, as it's an actual shantytown that was being relocated to modernized housing. The abundance of cows' heads as food is not unusual, either. The goat's heads split in half at the jaw are a local delicacy called "smileys."

A few audience members were curious about the choice of location and the localized story. Again, Blomkamp told us he made a conscious decision -- in this case highly localizing and focusing the story, as so many tangents could have been included, but would have diluted the story.

While Apartheid is clearly an influence in the film, District 9 explores xenophobia in a much broader sense. As it turns out, the choice of including the sub-plot of lower income prejudice against the disenfranchised aliens was eerily prophetic; around the time filming began in 2008, deadly rioting broke out in Johannesburg, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Zimbabwean immigrants.

A lot of details were discussed in the Q&A, including the fact that the aliens on the ship were a "worker class" and not any of the leaders. If you're still curious, you can find a detailed piece about the Q&A by Peter Hall on SciFi Squad.