A little like the alien spacecraft that adorns the poster this film seems to have arrived out of nowhere. Who would have thought that South Africa would be the breeding ground for a top-notch alien-politico-docu-buddy-flick (catchy, eh)? As one of the narrating voices says at the beginning, people would have expected first contact to happen in a city like New York rather than Johannesburg but it is here that an alien ship came to a halt almost 30 years ago bringing not laser beams and alien invasion but close to a million alien refugees in need of help. Referred to perjoratively as 'prawns' they now live in the titular shanty-town, looked upon by many of Johannesburg's human residents as a burden they would rather see jet off back home or shipped off elsewhere.
The private company in charge of policing them are MNU (Multi National United) who are looking to exploit the potential of the alien weaponry which so far is useless, the alien's DNA being integral to its functioning. The film begins as MNU are preparing to serve the aliens with eviction notices before moving them forcibly to District 10, a purpose-built camp 240 miles away from the city. We follow Wikus Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley in what is his first major acting role (it won't be his last - not just because I think he's marvellous but because I see he will be playing Capt. 'Howling Mad' Murdoch in the feature film of The A Team), as he heads the operation but intercut with that documentary and news footage we hear from various people involved, talking about it all as a past event, and we know from what they say that something goes very wrong.
When he is sprayed by some kind of fluid during a search Wikus begins a transformation. Anyone familiar with The Fly will understand what I mean and also have a good idea of the kind of special effects, not to mention the feeling of unease. What works so well here is that Wikus goes from a tank-top-wearing company man who regards prawns as a bureaucratic nuisance, to someone reliant on them for their help and protection. Given what his assimilation of alien DNA could mean to MNU he becomes a fugitive and the pace is frenetic, perhaps running away with itself towards the end where it becomes just like any other action thriller. It's most interesting moments come with the clever intercutting of different film stocks and perspectives, the distinctly weird way that man and alien have to work together, and the obvious significance of themes like segregation, dehumanisation and violence in a post-apartheid South Africa. All of this ignores the humour and the few tender moments that also dot the film; this is a man after all who wants nothing more than to be back with his wife again and that is the motivation behind all of the film's action.
In the age of identikit thrillers and action movies the set-up of this one is sufficiently interesting, and its execution in the first hour-and-a-bit original enough to warrant attention. It certainly heralds a promising future for its lead actor and director Neill Blomkamp