The film has smart people behind the lens but condescendingly assumes the other side their antithesis. The characters, especially our protagonist, government operative Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), lack dimension and rationale, presented as either broad caricatures of racist idealism or doe-eyed alien innocents. The audience, however, is guessed simpler still. The movie's humans have inexplicably learned to comprehend the alien tongue (and vice versa) but we're not even trusted to follow an English conversation with South African dialect without the aid of subtitles.
The movie's delusions of grandeur are its greatest flaw, and like "Paper Heart," the documentary elements of the film supplement a thoroughly average narrative. Blomkamp's intentions may be nobler than those of comparable popcorn flicks, but the execution is just as forgettable, its impression just as transient. And though "District 9" was advertised heavily as a documentary, the film itself is a mixed media experiment, unmotivated camera placement and all. Conventional action is shot in a hand-held documentary style, and any insightful social commentary is relegated to the back burner when things blow up, and they frequently do.
"District 9" is not without its merits, however. The visuals are (usually) impressive, with the foggy, leering mother ship subtly creeping into the edges of shots, and convincing facial detail for the prawns. The effects falter only occasionally (in a "Star Wars: Special Edition" kind of way) in wider shots where the aliens occupy the same space as the humans or we see their narrow, multi-jointed legs: they don't quite exist on the same plane as the rest of the world.
Blomkamp's direction is stronger than his pretentious writing, and individual sequences excel at creating excitement and suspense. However, the oversimplification of the underlying message and the on-the-nose symbolism make most scenes too generic to be profound, and when an investigatory mistake begins transforming Wilkus into a prawn (a derogatory term for the other-worlders), the plot becomes less a detailed examination of an intriguing supposition than a hodgepodge of schlocky action sequences and allusions to John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me" and David Cronenberg's "The Fly."
Based on the director's six minute 2005 short "Alive in Joburg," "District 9" ultimately gasps for identity over the nearly two hour running time. With its smattering of documentary-esque interview footage, conventional narrative sequences, and gory action, there's not a want for material so much as there is for thematic singularity. Employing a foundation more relevant than Campbell's mono-myth is a welcome template for a modern science fiction film, but "District 9" brings as many cliches to the table as innovations.
The film is by no means a poor way to spend a few hours at the multiplex, but is hardly the poignant masterpiece others have hailed it as.