District 9: *** 1/2 (out of 4)
The short version: go see this movie.
I will admit that I went into the movie expecting something special. The reviews were good, the concept looked fascinating, and I had even liked the trailers. The one reviewer that had anything bad to say about the movie somehow managed to mention Cane Toads: an Unnatural History in his review, which just made me more excited. And then, for good measure, I got free tickets from AICN, to see it the night before its official release. That's worth a few extra points... And so I dragged myself up to San Francisco to wait in line and see the movie with a friend.
District 9 is the first good "hard" science fiction movie I've seen in years, probably since Children of Men back in 2006. It is the story of a group of aliens that appeared in a non-functional spacecraft hovering above Johannesburg, and are taken down as refugees into South Africa. Decades later, the aliens are still there, living in a slum and causing significant tension with their relations to the locals. They can't speak any human languages, they aren't integrated into the workforce, and they spend their time scavenging in order to earn the money to buy meat - and, most infuriatingly, they have no technology to offer except for their weapons, which only they can use, and even that mostly just attracts the local Nigerian gangs locals. Everyone just want them to go home, but the aliens have no idea how to do so.
The story begins with an attempt to move the aliens - derisively, "prawns" - from their original homes to a new camp a couple of hundred kilometers away from the city center, where they won't be so obvious. Things go awry from the moment the first "eviction notice" is served, because of both the language barrier and the general disgust felt by the well-armed, utterly scared humans and the down-trodden, individually-mighty aliens. And from there, we follow the story of the man in charge of the relocation efforts, as the movie eventually turns into a major action-fest.
The background is a blatant allegory to apartheid, and never pretends to be anything but that. The story is told in part in a pseudo-documentary format, with segments taken from security cameras or from a planned documentary on the subject. (This is, by the way, why that reviewer mentioned Cane Toads. It's a documentary starring people with British accents! Clearly, they must be the same! facepalm)
The special effects are really quite good for a movie of a relatively small budget ($30M). Part of this is because the movie is filmed to look like it's coming from hand-held and security cameras; but more of it is just because they used the budget well, with no-name actors and "effective" effects rather than flashy ones. The alien ship is always in the background, but is offered as a detail rather than as a spectacle; the aliens themselves are very distinct, in much the same way that one human looks different from another. The biggest "effect" effects are the explosions, and they looked quite good too.
The social commentary... well, it works, at least for me. There was something fascinating about watching all branches of humanity loathe those different than themselves. Sure, the groups all followed their tropes: the protesters who stood up for the aliens were foolish-looking and ineffective, the army types were angry and excited to have something to shoot, the management bureaucrats were cynical and willing to do anything for a buck, the lower bureaucrats were clueless and in the way of all of the above. But there was something more harsh than usual about it, because in all cases it seemed more "acceptable" to hate the aliens. Maybe it was just that they were able to show more clearly that the "other side" had no real allies, but the resulting evil seemed more understandable somehow. And that made it all more effective for me.
More interesting than that was the interaction between the aliens. While not directly addressed by the movie, I came out with a definite sense that the aliens had a strong caste system, and that virtually all of the aliens on Earth were from a "worker" caste that were less-able to take care of themselves. There wasn't a lot of evidence to back this up, mind; it was just an impression. But the room to consider such a thing is a very nice thing in a movie. Ambiguity can be neat - even if half of the audience seemed cranky to have not been told explicitly why the aliens were there.
And the action scenes were excellent. I'll probably hold off talking about them too much for a while, until everybody that's going to see it has seen it, but... Mecha Combat! Whoo!
The biggest disappointment of the movie was that the theatre insisted on taking all of our electronics before we went in. I'm not entirely sure what they thought I was going to do with my GPS.
Anyway. Go see it.
(And I hope there's not a sequel!)