Some of the best science fiction films are those that slip in under the radar. They don't have a "name" cast, multimillion-dollar promotional campaigns or prime summer scheduling. They get by on solid screenwriting, directing and maybe a concept never before seen or expected. Think Dark City, Donnie Darko or Cloverfield. All "little" films that could...only the latter was a real box office success, but they all became cult classics through "you have to see this" word of mouth.
District 9 seems likely to be added to this list. Mostly unheralded in this summer's blockbuster season, it's quite possibly one of the best unconventional sci-fi films in years.
Filmed in a semi-documentary style (at least in the first half), the movie depicts one of the most honest portrayals of an alien visitation. In the early 80s, a giant spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa (which the movie acknowledges is already different than most American-centric filmmaking would give us) and just sat there. Once the military got inside, they found millions of alien refugees in a state of disorder, disease and poor living conditions, eventually moving them to a poorly managed slum called District 9.
Twenty years have passed and conditions have only worsened. Johannesburg's residents are not pleased with their presence and occasional incursions, the governments of the world won't let the aliens (known as "prawns" for their insectile/crustacean-like appearances) leave or join our society. The third-world/war refugee analogies are pretty obvious, but there is no heavy-handed proselytizing here.
The prawns have powerful weapons that can't be used by humans, so a powerful corporation with UN-esque authority have taken it upon themselves to police the district and seize these weapons. Their latest effort is to relocate the aliens to another camp, further from civiliation (and presumably even more restricted). Our POV character is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the paper-pusher promoted to oversee the evictions and serve notice across the district. Wikus ends up deeply embroiled in the struggle for the prawns to survive under circumstances I won't spoil, leading to a shift in the status quo and a battle for the future of an entire species.
At times brutal and violent, District 9 plays more like a street-drama than traditional genre flick, but it's still filled with incredible special effects work. The prawns themselves are masterfully done...I couldn't tell when they were CGI or practical models and/or costumes (if they are ever the latter at all). The haunting mothership looms over many shots and the action-packed final act features exotic weapons and machinery that makes CGI like Transformers look like over-done videogames.
District 9 is my pick for sleeper hit of 2009.