Inspired by the director's experience with apartheid as a boy in South Africa, the movie's title refers to a slum in which insectoid aliens reside. They show up in a ship that hovers above Johannesburg, and people finally cut their way into it. They find the "prawns" inside, but the aliens don't know how to make the ship work (that bit isn't specifically stated in the movie, though it is mentioned in a deleted scene). So after twenty years of growing tensions, the prawns are relegated to District 9.
As the movie opens, they're being moved to what is basically a concentration camp. Our POV character, Wikus van der Mewre (played by Sharlto Copely, who never really intended to be an actor but went on to play Murdock in the recent A-Team movie), shows us how the evictions are going down, documentary style, but then gets spritzed in the face by this alien juice he finds and begins to change into one. He is taken away by the shady organization for which he works, where it is discovered that he can operate the prawns' biological weapons. And then he teams up with a prawn who does understand their technology, in hopes of getting put back together.
The strength of the movie is in the performance of Copely, in the effects (the whole thing looks amazing and the weapons and their effects and fantastic) and in how dirty everything looks. The production design is fantastic, appropriate to some of the same crew that gave us Middle Earth. The prawns aren't the sleek, sexy aliens of the other sci-fi alien-war movie that came out in 2009 and was nominated for Best Picture (that'd be Avatar, which is a far-inferior movie, but it's pretty!), they're gross and slimy and...oddly compelling, in a way. The implication is that they may have been slaves, brought here by mistake, but I have another theory.
Suppose that humanity, for whatever reason, put a whole bunch of people on a spaceship. The people are just people, grabbed at random from population. And then there are, like, a crew of people to run the ship, and of those, a couple that are engineers who really understand the ship and how it works. And then everything gets fucked up and we landed on some inhabited planet, and the natives go, "well, shit, look at this dirty motherfuckers. Can't even operate their own tech. Must be pirates or slaves." But seriously, how many people reading this can even explain how a space shuttle works, much less know how to drive one? How many of us, if stuck inside a ship, would know how to do anything but starve to death? And if we wound up on a planet that, by some miracle, had an atmosphere that wasn't toxic, and we discovered that the shit they feed their pets is the yummiest custard ever, wouldn't we, y'know, fucking eat it?
The whole movie is, to me, a send-up of exactly how seriously we take ourselves and how little we deserve to. And at the end, when the prawn-gineer and his son escape with the ship and head off into the sky, you're left wondering - if they do come back, aren't we, as a species, utterly fucked? And don't we kind of deserve it?
My one complaint: The documentary format isn't consistently applied. It starts off as found footage or a documentary assembled after the events of the film, but we pretty quickly start seeing stuff that no one actually filmed. It's pretty easy to roll with it, but it's maybe a little sloppy.
My grade: A-
Rewatch value: Medium-high
Next up: Dodgeball