In my opinion, District 9 (written and directed by Neill Blomkamp) is the best, most original science fiction film I have seen since Blade Runner. The story, the style, the characters were unlike any film I have ever seen. In the tradition of Battlestar Galactica (the next generation), Dune (the book), and other groundbreaking science fiction, District 9 has a clear social and political message. In this case, the message was directed at Apartheid and the Iraq war. Like other great science fiction, it doesn’t beat the audience over the head with that commentary by taking you away from the core story with pace-stealing exposition. Instead, it was just part of the backdrop, seamlessly interwoven with the story. And what a great story! Despite the politicizing, the story had me riveted to my seat, alternately appalled at the indignities, ineptitude, immorality, and outright criminal behavior of the characters, cheering for intense action sequences, feeling tight with tension at the action sequences, and heartbroken. It was the first film that I have seen in a long time that kept me guessing what would happen next. Wow. My favorite movie of 2009 thus far, and hopefully it will earn one of those 10 best picture Oscar nominations.
Just because it is the most original science fiction film I have seen in a long time does not mean that it doesn't borrow from other films that came before it, most obviously Independence Day. In fact, the premise of the film is like a bizarro-Independence Day. The alien invasion setup is the same, but the invasion starts in South Africa, not New York or Washington (not a spoiler--this happens in the first three minutes of the film). The protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe, played wonderfully by Sharlto Copley is not a traditional action hero fighter pilot or inspirational leader. He is much closer to Ricky Gervais’ David Brent from The Office than Will Smith or Bill Pullman. This was probably furthered by the Office-esque documentary style storytelling technique employed by the director. Many of the visuals were clearly borrowed from Independence Day, yes. I enjoyed Independence Day, but District 9 is clearly not a product of the Hollywood summer blockbuster factory that created that film. It is much more human, much more gritty, and as such hits much harder.
Incidentally, audience members for the screening had to undergo a thorough security check by several burly gentlemen, presumably to block pirating. We had to submit to having bags searched, turn in our cell phones, and be scanned with a metal detector. During the screening, the security folks walked up and down the aisles, clearly looking for people who might be engaging in pirating activities. It was a bit surreal, and strangely paralleled some of the themes in the film.
UPDATE: I went to District 9 with my friend Noz. He wrote a pretty good, though not quite as glowing analysis of the film on his blog, with more insights on what films influenced it. Definitely worth a read.