Everyone's seen the trailer that kick-started one very fishy-looking viral campaign, interviewing several humans and an alien in quick succession. That marks many people's first exposure to Neill Blomkamp's District 9, and the trailer - which had a decently executed "mockumentary" feel to it, which only served to make its sci-fi content seem even more surprising. This same element of surprise is still present throughout the film proper, and it is quite a cinematic treat.
District 9 takes place in an alternate timeline where, twenty years ago, an alien spaceship came to a halt above the city of Johannesburg. The inhabitants of the ship are unable to operate the ship anymore, so they end up being segregrated to their own slum within the city below. Eventually, the government calls for the eviction of the aliens (nicknamed "prawns" due to their appearance) from the slum. The film's ostensible protagonist is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), who through a series of events too complicated to recount in a synopsis, ends up undergoing some rather dramatic changes and before long he's thrust into the middle of something far too big for him to handle...
The best thing about District 9 is that it always manages to stay fresh and surprising throughout. As the trailers indicate, it starts off as a mockumentary in order to expose the gist of the story. The film gradually crosses over to being a more conventional film, although still filmed with a very documentarian look and interspersed with occasional news footage or interviews. Despite the unexpected change in presentation, you don't really notice because you're so wrapped up in the ingenious premise. Then you're presented with the plight of Wikus, whose story is one I don't really want to expose too much because watching it all unfold was just amazing to watch. He's a perfect example of the Everyman, trying to survive as best he can in the face of everything that the world throws at him over the course of the film. His development, along with that Chris, the prawn he befriends (who is surprisingly well-rounded for a CGI character) raises this above your average science-fiction film. Even when the film's final third act becomes incredibly action-packed, it still doesn't jar with the mood of the film and doesn't forsake its characters and intelligence for the sake of cheap action sequences.
On that subject, the action sequences are far from "cheap". Given that Blomkamp and collaborator Peter Jackson were originally aiming to make a film adaptation of Halo before changing to this, there's still plenty of moments that feel quite reminiscent of Bungie's game, from the alien technology to the frantic battles. The effects work looks great in even the simplest of situations, to say nothing of the bombastic finale. There's just something about the way it all comes together, especially when it is combined with one very uncompromising storyline and subject.
District 9 is a rare find nowadays. It doesn't sacrifice the intelligence or raw power that its story affords it for the sake of appeasing your "typical" blockbuster crowd with a lighter rating and less focus on the story. It's a damned fine thriller that is not without its flaws, but is still several cuts above your average summer film and is well worth watching - but only if you can handle the heat. And it does get quite hot.