There's been no lack of big-budget science-fiction spectacle this summer. From its commercials, District 9 looks like more of the same, but a few key differences set it apart from - and in many cases above - its peers.

There's been no lack of big-budget science-fiction spectacle this summer. From its commercials, District 9 looks like more of the same, but a few key differences set it apart from - and in many cases above - its peers.

Directing his first feature with no less a backup than producer Peter Jackson, visual effects artist Neill Blomkamp has worked cheap, yet crafted a look as impressive and gadget-y as any blockbuster. He also offers a story with a little more substance than usual and one of the most unlikely action heroes of the season.

Newcomer Sharlto Copley is Wikus Van De Merwe, a bland bureaucrat who's risen through nepotism to an important job with the Alien Affairs division of a multi-national company in South Africa.

After a massive alien ship settled over Johannesburg in the early '80s carrying a million large, crustacean-like refugees, the nation's government turned their care over to the company, which created a fenced-in alien ghetto. In the present, public outcry over the unwanted immigrants leads to a resettlement plan, with Wikus serving the eviction notices.

The story is told mostly in a you-are-there documentary format. As in the similarly styled Blair Witch Project, the approach is effectively intense.

That's not the only element you've seen before. There are some worn character relationships, and the concern over humanity greeting its first extraterrestrial visitors goes back further than The Day the Earth Stood Still.

But Blomkamp gives it all a thoughtful, contemporary spin that's rich with unique detail, from creature design to satirical sound bites like the pre-recorded company motto: "A smile is cheaper than a bullet."