When I was in middle school and high school, I was pulled into a science fiction writing contest under the guise of a gifted student program. I did well enough with the guidance of a list of five emerging science/technology/health trends to place at a state level and just fall outside of the rankings at the international level. A few of these stories even got published in tiny science fiction journals that come and go in less then a year and are forgotten just as quickly.
Ironically, I really do not like science fiction. I was writing my default mode of alternate reality fiction, using published research and projections as a basis rather than a strange experience, dream, or fortuitous day of people watching. If it's the super nerdy scientifically accurate as can be variety, I get bored and put it down or turn it off. If it's the aliens make a sci-fi so lets have action and nothing else variety, I get bored and put it down or turn it off. I can't stand Star Wars or Star Trek, and can count on one hand the science fiction films I've truly enjoyed: Alien, Aliens, District 9.
What is so different about District 9 that I was able to overcome my aversion to science fiction while equally well done films like Sunshine leave me cold? I'm a sucker for a documentary.
District 9 opens with a very well-executed faux-documentary sequence of about 40-45 minutes detailing the rise of an alien ghetto in South Africa. The talking head interviews are as compelling as the archival footage of the "prawns" interacting with the humans. The entire film feels like it will be a documentary, and might have been even greater if it maintained that style throughout.
Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley in a brilliant debut performance) has just been promoted to a position requiring him to lead a crew into District 9 with the intent to evict all of the prawns from their homes. His nervous tics and pleasant demeanor are slowly undermined as we witness him tip-toeing over the line of diplomacy in dealing with the aliens. At first, he might claim that the prawn hitting the eviction notice counted as a signature; then he'll bribe them with cat food (an addictive substance to the species) to get them to sign. Then he really begins to cross the line, intentionally messing with the prawns, invading their homes, and ultimately discovering a device he would have been better off leaving alone. The entire film to this point is extremely suspenseful, as the documentary cues make it quite clear that something horrible is about to unfold and the situation becomes more and more tangled.
While Wikus is issuing evictions in District 9, we are introduced to the traditional narrative style of the film. Two adult prawns and one child are busy working at a computer over a project. They hide something, presumably a weapon, when Wikus shows up to issue the eviction. The one adult prawn and his son escape to wait out the presence of humans in District 9.
Soon after, sadly, the documentary style that worked so well in the first portion of the film is abandoned until the very end for a straightforward narrative style. The filmmaking techniques do not change, as the CGI-driven film looks realistic because of the lower quality digital film stock and the shifting focus of the camera. The story presented about Wikus and the father and son prawns is interesting, heartfelt, and tragic, but lacks the grit and intensity that made the documentary portion so compelling.
For a debut feature film, I do not believe Neill Blomkamp could have done better. He created a captivating world that clearly does not exist (no giant spaceship over Johannesburg in real life) but pulls so many cues from actual political and historical issues surrounding the country that the life of the prawns seems real. The integration of CGI is the most effective I've witnessed in a film. Everything looks real. CGI characters have clear personalities and physical differences that set them apart from each other instead of looking like an anonymous group of interchangeable cartoons. And the performances that Neill Blomkamp gets out of his entire cast, especially Sharlto Copley, is superb.
District 9 is a perfectly approachable science fiction film that manages to justify its purpose as science fiction while delivering everything the audience would expect - action, aliens, weapons, and social/political overtones - in a subtle, intelligent way that, judging by the box office success, still appealed to a mass audience. I can only hope that if a sequel is made, Neill Blomkamp does not have to jump through studio hurtles.
If only more science fiction was like this, I might be able to become a fan.