The No. 1 movie at the box office this weekend was not the big-budget, big-explosion G.I. Joe or the kid-friendly G-Force, but a smaller, no-stars picture named District 9. According to Box Office Mojo, the movie made about $37 million this weekend — and only cost $30 million to make.
To me, this is remarkable for several reasons. Sure, $37 million isn’t the biggest opening-weekend number even in recent memory. But this movie didn’t have a lot of things that other films have in their favor. It’s not based on an already-popular property (no comic book, no novel, no old TV show). The one recognizable name attached to it — Peter Jackson — is only a producer. It’s about aliens, which isn’t what people in the business would call a “four-quadrant” picture (meaning it appeals to old, young, male, and female audiences). And, as of a few months ago, nobody had ever heard of it.
So, how did it win the top spot this weekend? As far as I could tell, people just liked it. It started with an enthusiastic reception at — where else? — the San Diego Comic Con. (Neill Blomkamp, the director of the film, was supposed to direct a giant, studio-approved, drooled-over-by-nerds adaptation of the video game Halo, but when the studio balked at the big budget, Blomkamp and Jackson decided to do District 9 by themselves — but the experience still got Blomkamp some degree of name recognition among the Comic Con crowd.) From there, the good buzz just kept rolling, from a cover story in Entertainment Weekly (which gave the movie an A) to effusive praise everywhere from NPR to the Village Voice.
The Los Angeles Times writes that: “District 9 is very smart sci-fi, but that’s just the beginning; it’s also a scathing social satire hidden inside a terrific action thriller teeming with gross aliens and regrettable inter-species conflict.” The movie is about a space ship full of buglike creatures that gets marooned above South Africa. Not knowing what else to do, the government moves them into a refugee camp — which quickly becomes a crime-ridden slum — and tensions mount between the aliens and the locals. One doofy bureaucrat, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, gets in over his head when he’s tasked with moving the millions of aliens from one slum to another (serving them eviction notices first). With signs all over the place declaring businesses and entrances “For Humans Only,” there’s a clear allegory to apartheid (although people tell me that there are other, more subtle in-jokes if you’re up on South African current events).
The aliens, the allegory, the in-jokes — where did they all come from? Apparently, the whole thing started with a six-and-a-half-minute short Blomkamp did called “Alive in Joburg,” which you can watch below. Some aspects of the short — the documentary style, the world of aliens mingling among frightened locals — are true to the feature film. In the feature, however, the aliens look much, much better (a feat on such a small budget), and of course there’s an actual plot. But it all goes to show that you don’t need a zillion dollars and a trillion special effects to make a great summer movie — you need some interesting ideas.