The new things it brings to the table are its down-and-dirty style and its South African setting. This movie could have been made by an American, but the tension wouldn't have felt as real. In Robocop, they had to make up a fictional future where America was in total chaos. They don't need to make anything up to show chaos in South Africa, unfortunately. In fact, in an interview, Blomkamp said that the day they started filming was when a new round of xenophobic mob violence broke out... This setting is what makes the fantastical idea of aliens living among us feel real, and their problems feel immediate.[bxA]
Was it a spoiler for me that the movie isn't the same genre that its trailers make it out to be? I know I was surprised. A little history might be in order. Back in 2005, a South African visual effects artist named Neill Blomkamp directed a short film called "Alive in Joburg", a fake documentary about the aftermath of aliens landing in Johannesburg, eking out a living in slums, and the subsequent tension with the local government.
For its time, "Alive in Joburg" made impressive use of cutting-edge match-move techniques to place 3D rendered objects into grungy hand-held camera footage. That technology is all the rage now, and someone's even used it to put Star Destroyers over San Francisco. "Alive in Joburg" was more than that, though. It also used aliens as an allegory for apartheid. That might be obvious in retrospect, but no one had really done science fiction in South Africa before. It felt fresh and intriguing.
Like many, I suspect, I first heard about Neill Blomkamp when Peter Jackson picked him to direct the Halo movie (based on the popular video game franchise). That project fell through, though Blomkamp did end up making 3 short films to promote Halo 3, collectively titled, "Landfall". You can tell from the cheesy alien suits that it was truly low budget, but the action is very much in that gritty documentary shakycam special effects style.
Burnt out from the experience of big studio film politics, Blomkamp and Jackson decided to make a "low budget" ($30 million) movie instead, and they settled on expanding "Alive in Joburg" into a feature. Thus was District 9 born. I was excited that Blomkamp would be able to make something more unique and personal. (As much as I like the Halo games, its story is the very definition of derivative.) I was thus a bit disappointed that the plot in District 9 wasn't deeper on the political level, but I was delighted with the energy of the action. The balance just leaned more toward action than I had expected.
Someone else worth mentioning is Sharlto Copley. Who?! you ask. He's a writer and producer who co-produced "Alive in Joburg" and had a bit role in it. He ended up starring in District 9 as a doofus of an unexpected hero. He starts out just as amoral as the corporation he works for, but essentially gets humanity beaten into him. He did a great job, and it's his first feature role! I expect to see both Copley and Blomkamp finding much more work after this film.