District 9 is an action movie masquerading as something more intellectual. The premise — humans are forced to deal with a spaceship full of starving aliens that landed in Johannesburg — provides plenty of fodder for exploring all sorts of interesting moral and ethical issues. The director, however, is clearly more interesting in blowing shit up.
First of all, it is shot like a documentary (the thinking man’s genre), but drops the format whenever it becomes inconvenient. The story they choose to tell, of a fugitive who eventually disappears for good, could never really be told as a documentary. It’s a bad fit.
Second, the human characters are barely believable. Wikus van der Merwe, the bureaucrat chosen to orchestrate the alien evacuation, is almost “Michael Scott” incompetent. (Perhaps that and the documentary style were an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Office?)
We’re told that “prawns” is a derogatory name for the aliens, but everybody uses that word (including alien-sympathetic protestors) and we never hear what the politically correct name is. Humans are so terrible they learned the alien’s click-language but never bothered to ask them what they liked to be called!
Wikus becomes infected with something that allows him to operate alien weaponry. Within hours a group of scientists and bureaucrats are discussing how best to chop him up to harness this ability. They are having this conversation in front of Wikus, him while he is conscious and objecting. They ignore him.
That is ridiculous. Humans can be cruel, but we accomplish this by distancing ourself from suffering and abstracting away the victims. That scene would have been a lot more believable if it were set in a board room.
It also would have helped if at least one of them had some reservations about cutting his heart out of his chest without sedation. Just one character to say, “Are you sure we need to do this?” Even if she (it would, of course, be the only woman in the room) was immediately shut down with a reply like, “We have no choice,” a moment like that would lend a lot of credibility to the film.
All of the shortcomings and inconsistencies would be more forgivable if the film was unashamed to be an action movie. It is well made and visually excellent. But the fact that it pretends to be something smarter, when it isn’t, makes it a serious disappointment.
In summary, I feel exactly the same way about it as Roger Ebert.