THE SKY'S THE LIMIT

In the docu-style, sci-fi thriller "District 9," which arrives in theaters Aug. 14, hundreds of thousands of aliens become stranded in South Africa after their massive spaceship comes to a standstill above downtown Johannesburg.

Unable to fix the craft, this massive population of tentacle-waving, exoskeleton-sheathed aliens eventually outstays its welcome; they become reviled by humans for burdening the country's welfare system even though all they really want to do is go home. Corralled into District 9 -- a rubbish-strewn refugee camp that calls to mind Mumbai's septic squalor, captured to striking effect in "Slumdog Millionaire" -- they are segregated from the general populace by barbed wire. There, the film's sentient yet excitable aliens are denied such basic necessities as running water and are denigrated by native earthlings as "prawns" for their resemblance to Sasquatch-sized shellfish.

Given the film's real-life setting amid Soweto's teeming townships and its segregationist signage -- "For humans only! Non-humans banned!" read placards in the movie -- it's impossible not to correlate the aliens' predicament with recent South African history. And that's no accident. Call "District 9" the world's first autobiographical alien apartheid movie

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg during an era of white minority rule; later, memories of the apartheid government's social divisiveness and authoritarian control became "the most powerful influence" in shaping his creative vision.

"It all had a huge impact on me: the white government and the paramilitary police -- the oppressive, iron-fisted military environment," Blomkamp said over breakfast recently in a Santa Monica hotel. He appeared boyish, fresh-faced in jeans and a button-down shirt, his hair spiky with product, while exuding a preternatural sense of focus. "Blacks, for the most part, were kept separate from whites. And where there was overlap, there were very clearly delineated hierarchies of where people were allowed to go."

He continued: "Those ideas wound up in every pixel in 'District 9.' "

Arriving as one of the hottest properties at San Diego's recent Comic-Con, the movie wowed its fanboy premiere audience and set the TweetDeck alight with reports that "District 9" is the real deal: one of the most original sci-fi films to come along in years.

It should boggle the imagination of anyone who sees the movie to discover, then, that for all its narrative assuredness and engrossing neo-realism, "District 9" is the debut feature of a director who has not yet reached the tender age of 30. Moreover, despite showcasing more than 600 computer-enhanced shots of bizarro aliens, high-tech weaponry and crazy spaceship blastoffs -- much of it shot in cinema verite-style that one-ups last year's "Cloverfield" -- Blomkamp, 29, managed to shoot "District 9" on a modest $30-million budget.

Those merits aside, however, Sony's decision to roll out the film in the midst of summer's ultracompetitive movie lineup boils down to three words attached to "District 9": "Peter Jackson presents." Jackson, the Oscar-winning writer-director behind the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" franchise, was key in actualizing Blomkamp's vision for "District 9," producing the film, arranging its independent financing and helping Blomkamp iron out kinks in the script.

"He saw South African society -- both the good and bad of the society there -- and he wanted to put a science fiction spin on what he witnessed growing up because he's a science fiction geek," said Jackson, who had traveled from New Zealand to Comic-Con primarily to sing Blomkamp's praises. "I really like the idea that here was a guy who was making a movie based on life experience, not just on some movie that he was a fan of. 'District 9' is not reflective of any movie that I can imagine. It's really very original, which I love about it, and that's totally Neill."

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'Halo' effect

But before there was a "District 9," Blomkamp was attached to "Halo," a planned $145-million movie adaptation of the popular space age shoot-'em-up video game of the same name. In 2005, Jackson signed on to write the script for what would have been a joint production between 20th Century Fox and Universal, also serving as its producer with the intention of hiring "someone young and new" to direct.

Universal's production chief at that time, Mary Parent, was in charge of vetting filmmakers for the project and presented Blomkamp's show reel to Jackson. It included a six-minute short film, "Alive in Joburg" -- a mockumentary depicting space alien refugees living in segregation in a South African township.

Blomkamp landed the job and pulled up stakes from his home in Vancouver, Canada, to move to New Zealand and set to work at Jackson's production facility, Weta Workshop. "He was just what we were after," Jackson said, "one of these guys who lives and breathes film."

The "Halo" assignment represented the culmination of more than a decade of work for Blomkamp, who heeded his professional calling at an age when most kids are still breaking in baseball mitts. "When I was 14 or 15, I got into 3-D animation on the computer my parents bought me," he said. "I was toying with practical effects. Prosthetics and in-camera effects. Models and photography. I knew I wanted to be involved in all that."

His family relocated to Vancouver when Blomkamp was 18. He enrolled in Vancouver Film School. And after working as an effects artist for a production company and shooting music videos for local bands, he moved into directing TV commercials.

Blomkamp continued to shoot special effects-heavy short films during his off-hours, though, funneling around 40% of his yearly earnings toward paying for them. And after being featured at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase in Cannes in 2004, he decided to break into Hollywood, resulting almost immediately in a fortuitous business union: Blomkamp landed one of Hollywood's preeminent dealmakers, agent Ari Emanuel, to represent him.

But after months of preproduction on "Halo," the project fell apart. "I don't know the specifics -- it was Universal and Fox duking it out," Blomkamp said. (Published reports said Fox and Universal backed out after unsuccessfully trying to renegotiate profit-sharing terms with producers, including Jackson and Halo's manufacturer, Microsoft Corp.)

Blomkamp added: "I put a hell of a lot of effort into that. We had done five months of design and early manufacturing of the soldiers' outfits, the vehicles. Hundreds of people were employed. The upsetting part is when you've done a lot of work and it gets swept under the rug."

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A powerful suggestion

Blomkamp was ready to go home in defeat when a brief conversation with Jackson's partner and frequent collaborator, Fran Walsh, changed the course of Blomkamp's career. Her suggestion to him: "Why don't you stay and work on something with a sci-fi twist? Something that represents you."

"She had the idea to turn 'Alive in Joburg' into a feature," recalled Blomkamp, who lighted up at the memory. "I was like, 'That's awesome!' "

Jackson seized on the idea of putting together a "true independent film" financed outside the studio system. "The very next day, all the artists switched from 'Halo' to 'District 9,' which, we didn't have a name for it at that stage," Jackson said. "We basically supported Neill. We didn't have a studio involved so we funded the development of the movie ourselves."

With his writing partner Terri Tatchell, Blomkamp began drafting the screenplay in 2007. Grappling with the larger social commentary about apartheid and minority rule he wanted to make, however, Blomkamp worried the film would become too serious and oppressive and that it "wouldn't be entertaining on a popcorn level." He tacked the word "SATIRE" in giant letters to his office wall as a kind of working manifesto, to deflate his potentially grandiose sense of self-importance as a filmmaker and remind himself that he was creating entertainment. "I realized I could take all the ideas I had and have them make fun of themselves," Blomkamp said. "At the same time, I could address all of the stuff I wanted to get in there."

He kept costs down, in part, by casting his childhood friend and frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley -- a writer-director-producer with limited experience in front of the camera -- in the film's lead role. He portrays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling field operative for MNU, a giant corporate conglomerate that wants to relocate the aliens from their shanties to a newly built extraterrestrial ghetto. When the character accidentally contaminates himself with a mysterious alien biological fluid during an MNU sweep, however, his life unravels and his allegiances shift. As such, Wikus finds himself an unlikely catalyst for non-human revolt.

As well, Blomkamp eliminated expensive research and development costs by relying on his technical virtuosity as a visual-effects director. "A hard-shell insect surface on an alien is going to give you a better result than a jellyfish surface," he explained. "My stuff tends to be [computer generated] in some very harsh sunlight. Harsh shadows. Sometimes it's easier to make stuff look real in that environment."

But in mid-2008, as filming commenced in one of Soweto's poorest neighborhoods, reality intervened. "As we started shooting, we woke up to smoke on the horizon with army choppers," Blomkamp said. "South African groups had started to lynch and burn and machete these other groups. Mass murder was happening within a few kilometers of us!"

A decade of animosity between Zimbabwean refugees and impoverished South African blacks had boiled over into rioting, Blomkamp noted, at the moment his movie partially inspired by the same phenomenon, what he terms "black on black xenophobia," was finally taking form.

"We were making a film about the most serious topic in Southern Africa but it was a satirical film," he said. "Obviously, we were afraid. I felt like I was stomping around like some uncoordinated, goofy, first-time filmmaker wrestling with a topic that was now highly, highly serious."

Copley, who has known Blomkamp since the director was 14, says Blomkamp stayed cool while the pressure ratcheted up around him. He channeled that heightened sense of consequence into what appears on the screen in "District 9."

"He flows with things more than anybody I have worked with and gets what he needs out of a situation," Copley said. "It's really something to see. Here's a guy who has an incredible artist head space. And he's following his emotions into it."

Blomkamp said he plans to follow up "District 9" with another sci-fi project he describes as "seriously kick-ass." But also in the offing is another project the writer-director plans to self-finance with whatever revenue he reaps from his feature debut -- a self-preservation measure you could attribute to his hard-learned lessons on "Halo."

"It's really out there. I have to set it up with my own cash," said Blomkamp, grinning at the thought. "It won't take tens of millions of dollars to make it work. I just have to be in control of it so it can be as ridiculous as it needs to be."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

Times staff writer Gina McIntyre contributed to this report.

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