It’s “The Office” if it were directed by Paul Verhoeven in this sci-fi-drama-cum-satire from producer Peter Jackson and writer/director Neill Blomkamp. Initially taking its cues from the mockumentary format, the film begins with a series of interviews with various officials of MNU (Multi-National United, a generic evil giant corporation), including an affable, earnest doofus named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), in sort of the Michael Scott role. As the interviews go on to explain, he has been appointed the district commander of the alien outpost/slum just inside Johannesburg. The catch here is the “aliens” are exactly that — extraterrestrials not from this planet. They are interstellar immigrants who arrived some twenty years ago via a giant mothership, hanging listlessly directly over the city ever since. Initially, there was a lot of interest in the aliens, but since they were shown to be essentially dim-witted, purposeless and ugly (derogatorily referred to as “prawns”), they were eventually forced into an outdoor detention center. This area has since turned into a haven of crime, with scads of murderous Nigerians terrorizing the place, piles of garbage and cans of cat food (the aliens are mad for the stuff) scattered about. Van De Merwe is tasked with moving the aliens from this slum to a fully militarized detention camp far outside the city limits. He goes at the job with great gusto, but things, shall we say, do not go well for him. Blomkamp’s first feature film is hard to classify, exactly. After the initial interviews, it settles into a more standard narrative, shifting from characters’ perspectives, and, at the same time, appears to want to be taken far more seriously. There is certainly a rich vein of both drama and satire to mine, as the aliens manage to personify every negative characteristic humans typically ascribe to other groups. Set in South Africa, the historic home of apartheid and real slums every bit as degrading and dehumanizing as those the aliens are forced into, the movie’s politics play out like liberal dogma (it eventually turns out that many of the aliens are more sensitive and honorable than their human counterparts), even as the filmmakers delight in throwing splattered body parts and oozing emissions all over the lens. The plot resembles nothing quite as much as a video game with ever-higher levels of difficulty and increasing degrees of bloody, nonsensical exposition. Still, as compared to the miserable Hollywood summer blockbusters screaming at us at 4000 screens from week to week, at least this film dares to engage with more weighty issues. Put it this way: I’d take 100 prawns scrabbling over a can of cat food over Optimus Prime and never look back.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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