Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #122
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley and Jason Cope
In a year rife with big budget science fiction flicks (Star Trek and the ubiquitous Avatar spring to mind, among others), one underdog film grabbed genre mastermind Peter Jackson's attention and caused him to sign on as a producer. That was the understated and brilliant District 9, an allegory about apartheid in South Africa that centered on a tragically earthbound race of aliens who can cause people to metamorphose into creatures not unlike themselves, stranded because of a spaceship malfunction. The apartheid message is sometimes delivered a bit too heavily, but the film is one of the most fun – and truth be told, best – movies of 2009.
Despite some modern-looking production values, I think District 9 really hearkens back to the era of low-budget science fiction movies that still managed to be visually impressive and interesting. There are so many special effects and animations that were actually pretty simple to execute in this movie that James Cameron should be embarrassed for thinking the only way to do sci-fi visuals properly is to throw money at them. The lightning gun technology, the spaceship, and the transformation of our human protagonist into a "prawn" – the South Africans' derogatory term for the alien race – are all visual highlights of the film. Showing how adept he is with a small budget, director Neill Blomkamp's feature debut shows a ridiculous amount of promise for future work where he'll actually have big studio money behind his projects. Who knows what that will do for his career.
As the film progresses, it mercifully becomes more of a science fiction film about the aliens and their relationship with South Africans than the faux-documentary laid thick with apartheid allegory that it starts as. Unfortunately, the transformation of the film from being one style to another, even though it's for the better, makes the movie feel jarringly piecemeal at times, and when the documentary-style cinematography reappears toward the end of the film, it feels both unwarranted and cheap. These are things that Blomkamp will be able to work on as he tackles future projects, but it's not unfair to point them out as flaws. As visually striking and fun to watch as District 9 is, it has some technical flaws that hinder it considerably. Still, in a strong year for movies, it implanted itself in people's memory banks and sits comfortably above the halfway point on the IMDb Top 250, so apparently folks had no problem looking past its flaws to see the meat of the picture. Fortunately for them, that meat is filet mignon. District 9 is officially science fiction royalty, and I wouldn't be shocked if in twenty years it's talked about with the same hushed and reverent tones that the original Star Wars trilogy is discussed with now.
The Good: The lightning gun effect is really damn cool. So are the prawns. And the spaceship. In short, the movie's visuals are the best thing about it.
The Bad: Inconsistent style. Blomkamp never should have done any of the mockumentary shots in the first place.
The Skinny: #122 is damn high, and I'd have it a lot lower, but I won't say it doesn't deserve its spot on the list. It's hard to think of many science fiction movies that deserve it more.