I haven’t seen a horror/sci-fi film with this much social commentary in a long time. Produced by Peter Jackson, this science fiction epic follows the nerdy and inept Wikus Van De Merwe, who because he lucked into marrying the beautiful daughter of a very powerful corporate magnate, is given a very important job: monitoring and controlling the recent alien-insect population explosion in Johannesburg, South Africa.
You see, 20 years ago, a crippled space ship was stranded directly above Johannesburg, and in a classic case of “curiosity killed the cat”, after three months of waiting for the aliens to show themselves, we nosy humans took it upon ourselves to cut through the ship to get a look at the extraterrestrials. What we found was a large number of sick and dying man-sized insects. Being the kind and compassionate race we are, we couldn’t leave well enough alone and just let them die; we had to save them. But once we rescued them, they started breeding, scaring the South Africans, who immediately erected a wall around the rescue area, effectively creating a slum-like concentration camp.
Now the slum has become dangerous and people are protesting the influx of alien insects, so Wikus is assigned the unenviable task of “relocating” the bugs to a new, bigger (and cheaper) tent city far away from Johannesburg.
But the clumsy Wikus accidentally ingests an insect chemical that begins to change him into an alien. Now his greedy and crooked father-in-law wants to use his hybrid blood for evil purposes and Wikus is forced to seek help from the very race he has been hired to persecute.
While this film can be viewed simply as an action/sci-fi film, and is enjoyable as such, it was obvious to me that the filmmakers were trying to say more than just that killing big bugs is fun. The irony of this film being set in Johannesburg, the capitol of Apartheid, where both blacks and whites are now showing racial hatred for the aliens was very clear. And I’m not just looking for social commentary here. There are shots of demonstrations and protests against the aliens, and “No Aliens Allowed” signs (similar to No Smoking signs with the cigarette in the middle and a big red circle with a slash through the center). The aliens have become a social problem. They have been placed in a slum where desperation has bred crime such as black market weapons (with the help of Nigerians) and illegal alien breeding (with the government breaking down doors and killing the egg sacs, similar to the horror stories of Chinese police forcing abortions on Chinese women due to government laws to control population). I thought it was fascinating to see this kind of commentary in the film.
But lest you think this is a strictly serious film, you can clearly see Peter Jackson’s hand in this movie. Wikus is a bumbling, stumbling, inept goober who looks and sounds very much like Timothy Balme’s character of Lionel in “Braindead” (1992). He is a reluctant hero who is forced into action, and much like Bruce Campbell’s character of Ash in “The Evil Dead” series, he is transformed by the end of the movie into a one-man wrecking crew. Like both Lionel and Ash, Wikus gives us ample opportunity to laugh at his mistakes, adding a comedic element to what could have been a very urban and gritty film. This keeps the film from being too downbeat or nihilistic.
The film is fairly violent with lots of exploding bodies, severed limbs, and even a horror chamber of alien torture similar to what Dr. Mengele might have had in Auschwitz (further commentary?). As Wikus transforms into an insect, his teeth fall out, his skin bubbles and ruptures, and his nails fall off, all of which smacks of Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986). However, the gore is not over-the-top or extreme. Even the exploding body shots are filmed at such a distance and edited to quickly, you really only get an idea of what’s going on. In fact, the fingernails being pulled off by Wikus as he is slowly transformed into an alien caused more of a stir in the theater than any of the other violent scenes.
Much of the film is done in cinema verite style (my that’s become popular since 1999’s “The Blair Witch”), with “man on the street interviews” and shaky cameras capturing the violence of the public demonstrations and alien riots, but this technique is largely abandoned during the middle of the film for the more standard film view as Wikus is being chased by various corporate and governmental agencies.
I found this to be a fun film, with plenty of social commentary for those who choose to look for it. Full of humor, action, and violence, this one should be a hit.