District 9 is unlike anything you've ever seen.
It's weird, brilliant, brutal, and gorgeous. It's inventive and surprising and disarmingly unique, and it's one of those too-rare films that's both relentlessly entertaining and also has something to say. It's the sort of story you won't be able to stop thinking about afterward, and, not to build it up too much or get embarrassingly hyperbolic, but goddamn—in a whole lot of ways, this thing feels like a game-changer.
The idea: Two decades ago, a massive ship entered Earth's atmosphere, gliding to a halt above South Africa. The appearance of the craft—ominous, colossal, and truly, terrifyingly alien—prefaced neither an Independence Day-style invasion nor a heartwarming hug-fest with friendly ETs. The ship just sat there, silent, hanging over Johannesburg, for months—until humans clumsily sliced their way inside the hull and stumbled in, only to discover squalor, pain, and sickness. Stranded, and with no way to provide for themselves, the insectile aliens inside were taken down to Johannesburg.
District 9 was intended to be a center for humanitarian aid—but as time passed, it instead turned into a camp, and then into a slum, which is when District 9 begins. Decades after our first contact with an alien species, the impoverished extraterrestrials live in filthy shacks behind coils of barbed wire, and the South African government—sick of attempting to provide for them, sick of trying to defend them from the humans who loathe them—has turned over management of District 9 to a private corporation, Multi-National United. MNU also happens to be "the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world," and, believably enough, they have little interest in the aliens' welfare—but plenty of interest in their technology. All of this makes it just a teensy bit awkward when an officious, dimwitted MNU agent, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely), comes into contact with a strange substance—and is forced to seek out one of District 9's residents, an alien who's been assigned the very unalien name of Christopher Johnson.
The scope of District 9 is vast—there are stunning images, astonishing special effects, and exhilarating action sequences that in any other film would serve as climactic showcases. But despite his film's scale, South African-born writer/director Neill Blomkamp keeps his handheld camera firmly at eye level, intent on telling an extraordinary story through ordinary eyes. While Blomkamp's striking visuals and utterly convincing, insightful documentary style suggest genius, neither his visual tricks nor the film's sci-fi novelty are focal points of the film—instead we watch Wikus, and we watch Christopher, and we realize that while District 9 might feature space aliens, Blomkamp and his cowriter Terri Tatchell are interested in them as individuals rather than as special effects—and we, too, become fascinated not with the aliens' unfamiliar strangeness, but rather what their presence here says about us. Throughout its too-brief running time, District 9 can be, and is, many things—but it never stops being extraordinary.