Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is a stand-out first film from a young director, in that it displays ingenuity and innovation to tell a distinctive story that engages audiences and helps to sell plenty of movie tickets. This is no mean feat in an age in which science fiction action films have become virtually ubiquitous, and the standards of quality narrative and acting that audiences expect of such films remains relatively low. Often, audiences are happy to watch 80 minutes of explosions and high-tech combat without a glimpse of decent acting or thought-provoking plot lines. District 9 is able to deliver both of these commodities, with the ideas of Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell building an interesting and morally complex worldview into the film's alien-inhabited Johannesburg setting, while the performance of newcomer Sharlto Copley in the lead role of Wikus van der Merwe brings surprising depth and believability to a role that could easily have descended into parody or mediocrity in lesser hands.
Copley now finds himself among a select few who have excelled in leading roles despite not being trained actors; a long-time friend of Blomkamp, District 9 is his first major acting role. It is surprising, then, that his performance is strong enough to provide a convincing and believable core for a film belonging to a genre that often treats realistic performances as a luxury that can be dispensed with.
His improvised scenes early in the film portray Wikus as a gormless functionary, one who is chosen for greater responsibility only because his calculating father-in-law shoulder-taps him for a role beyond his station. Managing the mass eviction of aliens from the District 9 slums in order to move them to a new camp far away from Johannesburg, Wikus displays a jocular familiarity with the camera crews documenting the operation. Copley has fun with the role, allowing Wikus to enjoy his rare taste of power and authority. This portion of the film has led many observers to draw parallels with the institutionalised cruelty of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the seemingly callous indifference of Wikus to the piteous conditions of the alien slums and their almost complete lack of rights is carefully exposed. A scene in which he banters with the camera whilst immolating a secret nest of eggs containing unauthorised alien babies is chillingly effective.
Yet it quickly becomes clear that despite being an unthinking exponent of the evictions and the inherent discrimination that underpins them, Wikus is not without empathy for the ‘prawns’, the euphemism by which the insectoid aliens are referred to. (It is unclear whether the humans consider this to be a derogatory term). Outbreaks of violence against the aliens by the corporate military guards shock Wikus, and signal that perhaps this mere bureaucrat is not as soulless as he might at first seem.
As the plot (which I shall avoid revealing) advances, and Wikus is tested to the limits of his endurance and sanity, Copley’s performance ensures that his character, which could easily have been reduced to simplistic one-dimensional emoting amidst a swathe of gunfights and explosions, remains engaging and believable. Indeed, it’s a testament to the qualities Copley brings to the role that his character becomes, in a strange way, likeable, and that his plight engenders a degree of sympathy.
In May, the South African website Tonight.co.za reported his surprise at finding himself in the lead role of a major film:
Copley, who produced the 2005 short Alive In Joburg, helped director Neill Blomkamp to produce a new short as a test for some of their ideas - and the rest is about to become film history.
"It was just a test, but then Neill and Peter Jackson decided to cast me in the lead part. To get Peter's backing right from the beginning… I couldn't have done a big Hollywood movie without that," said Copley.
[Blomkamp] shot some test film of his friend Sharlto Copley, who’s not a professional actor as such. He’s an old buddy of Neill’s ... they used to know each other when they were young and Neill wanted Sharlto to be the lead in the film. And he’s actually really, really great. You’ll see that for yourself when you see the film.
High praise from someone who knows how to choose a good actor. Perhaps Copley was destined to play this role to perfection and may find his acting abilities stretched in other types of role. But even if that does occur, he can point to his work in District 9 – and perhaps any sequels that emerge – as the strongest debut by an inexperienced actor in many years.