Could Neill Blomkamp's District 9 be the best SF film in a generation? I think you could make the case for it. Set in an alternate history Johannesburg where a massive alien ship mysteriously appeared over the city in 1982, it more than distinguishes itself on a number of levels.
One unique element is how it upends the genre's alternately triumphalistic and terrifying tropes. Instead of featuring beneficent creatures that come in peace or chitinous horrors eager to rend human flesh, the film's aliens are pitiful refugees struggling to simply survive. They can't stay in their pestilent ship, and earth's inhabitants don't want them to integrate into human society. The solution? They end up segregated in District 9. Only that doesn't entirely quell human concerns, so a private security firm called Multinational United (MNU) gets hired to relocate the aliens to a camp far from civilization. Enter Wikus van de Merwe, a faithful MNU drone who does his work with loads of cheerfulness and a startling lack of perception. He's been tasked with the big move, a massive career bump for him, and everything goes as planned -- at first. Wikus proceeds from one ramshackle hut to another, delivering eviction notices and securing legally binding signatures, until he comes in contact with a strange metal cylinder. A cylinder filled with dark liquid. A cylinder that discharges its contents all over him. Ready or not, things are about to change for Wikus in a big way ...
A second distinction? District 9's cinematic style. My Netflix DVD sleeve described it as cinéma vérité, that jittery documentary style that approximates true-to-life shooting, and that's mostly how it unfolds in the initial scenes. The film begins with a nervous Wikus mugging for the camera as he explains the relocation project. Various pundits and academic experts provide exposition, interspersed with shots of Wikus and his crew moving through the district. And then, quite suddenly, the conceit falls to pieces. I don't want to give any spoilers here, but let's say that once Wikus gets sprayed by that odd fluid the cameras start following him into places they'd never normally have access. Indeed, at least one reviewer noted the radical shift from ostensible documentary to buddy movie shoot-'em-up.
Now, purists might sniff at the shift in subject and tone, but I found it far from fatal. Stories are never composed of only one thing. Form and theme, character and plot, setting and speculative suppositions -- all play their part. While District 9 might've stumbled at one of them, the rest soar. Don't trust my humble opinion alone: The film earned a nomination for best picture at the 82nd Academy Awards.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Solomonic)