The movie is a serious-minded science fiction piece with a number of important characters that will exist exclusively as CGI effects, which must interact realistically with live actors; but the budget is only about a third of what the screenplay implies it ought to be.
The director has never directed a feature film in his life.
There will only be two characters with enough screen time to allow the audience to connect with them emotionally. One is a bipedal crustacean CGI effect. The other, the protagonist, is a thoughtlessly racist martinet nebbish prone to bad decisions who spends the entire movie desperately over his head. He will be played by a buddy of the director's whose only acting experience is a few of the director's prior short films, and who will be asked to improvise the bulk of his dialog.
Go ahead. Imagine this film.
You're picturing a cinematic train wreck, right? A wretched mess doomed before the first scene was even shot? It just screams direct-to-video, assuming it even gets completed; Christ, it would take a minor miracle for this movie to even be watchable, right?
Well, you can see for yourself. The movie exists. It's called District 9, and it's in theaters right now.
And it's not merely "watchable." It's fucking awesome.
An alien ship appears a couple of miles above Johannesburg, South Africa. The world watches and waits for it to do something ... and waits ... and waits ... and waits. When we get sick of waiting and cut our way into the thing, we find over a million non-human refugees crammed inside, filthy and in the process of starving to death. South Africa gives them a large plot in the middle of Johannesburg -- the titular District 9 -- and evacuates them there, giving them a place to live while we figure out what to do next.
Thirty years later, "what to do next" turns out to be relocating them somewhere else, because god dammit, South Africa is tired of having a slum crammed with over a million dangerous non-human dipshits smack in the middle of its largest city, and nobody else wants the fuckers.
And that's where our movie begins.
The eviction process is headed up by Wikus Van De Merwe, the aforementioned martinet nebbish. Things go badly -- surprise! -- and Wikus soon finds himself hunted by the people he once worked for, because....
That would be telling.
This movie flat-out works. It's framed as a documentary, but it doesn't get hung up on the conceit. When it needs to show you something that the documentary crew couldn't possibly have seen it does so; but it holds onto that gritty feel, making the transitions virtually seamless. The CGI aliens are convincing and quite alien. And Wikus ... ah, Wikus. On paper, he's a hateful, petty little man, but actor Sharto Copely gives him such clueless amiability that he at least earns the audience's pity. That's not much, but it's enough to get the audience to care about the guy, and get us involved in his journey, and Copely makes the gradual emotional transformation completely convincing. From concept to casting, making a movie that rides on the shoulders of a guy like Wikus doesn't require "balls" so much as "bat-shit insanity," and yet Copely and director Neill Blomkamp pull it off.
And I haven't even mentioned this thing's an action movie. Movies this thoughtful rarely have this much visceral impact. Or is it that movies this action-packed are rarely this intelligent? Whatever. The plentiful action scenes work just as well as everything else in this movie, which is to say really damn well.
It's not perfect. The significant human characters outside of Wikas are often too over-the-top sneeringly foul for my liking, and there's one "I'm so eeeeeeeeevil!" speech in particular that shouldn't have escaped the cutting room. The cartoonish nature of the bad guys undercuts the movie's social message -- sure, denying legal rights to a group of people leaves them vulnerable to the predations of sociopaths. But that's not nearly as insidious as exploitation at the hands of people who don't precisely intend harm but have no reason to either treat them as equals or to question a host of very problematic assumptions.
You know, guys like Wikas.
And District 9 raised a few very interesting questions within its own universe that it didn't seem very interested in exploring. In particular, the aliens really are dangerous and (with only one exception the movie shows us -- well, one and a half) pretty damned stupid. How does that alter the moral calculus about what's to be done with these people? The movie makes it very clear that the current situation represents the wrong answer, but nobody even seems to look for the right one.
Ah, well. The movie had plenty else on its plate.
District 9 is intense, engrossing, and unlike every other action movie I've seen this summer, doesn't punish you for leaving your brain in gear. It's also very dark and occasionally quite grisly, so viewer beware if that ain't your thing.
I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. If your tastes include blood-stained sci-fi action-adventure, I highly recommend it.
Because seriously, how often to you get to walk into a theater and witness a goddamn miracle?