This is an amazing film, both for what it sets out to do, and for what it accomplishes. Taking the form of a documentary, it brings science fiction as close to real as I’ve ever seen it. It is the documentary form, I think, that convinces a viewer that this is happening, or has happened.
The film is about what would happen if aliens came to Earth powerless and malnourished. Human kindness would collide with our own aversion to aliens and suddenly you have camps where the aliens are kept. It’s a brilliant stroke to make this set in South Africa and not New York or LA or London.
This film will surprise you at every moment. I found myself, a film junkie, a sci-fi enthusiast, completely unprepared for where the movie would take me until it took me there. The writing is superb. You can’t find a traditional plot here anywhere.
Certainly we’ve come to an age where we can make special effects seem real—Peter Jackson, the producer and Neill Blomkamp, the director, have gone out of their way to make you see the special effects as realistically as possible. Yes, the insectoid aliens are CGI, but there’s not a lot of special effects here that are obvious. God bless ‘em, effects are being smoothed into a film now.
This is not a mockumentary, whose job it is to make you laugh; it is filmed as a documentary to trick your brain into accepting its premise. And it works. I remember reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, as a kid. And I hated the diary parts—but it is the story in letters that make that novel all the more horrifying because the author didn’t want it to seem like fiction. They wanted you scared because these were actual letters. It was more creepy to do it that way. And this film, using documentary style–down to the archived tapes, the dates at the bottom, the steadycam moments–makes you think that someone pieced this together from twenty years of real footage. Some of it is grainy, some of it is blurry.
If you want realistic science fiction, you blend the techniques and technology we have now with the strange and possible technology; you bring in recognizable cultural reactions (the Nigerians scamming the aliens), historical patterns of behavior (Nazi experimentation), all without winking at the audience. Letting them react. They will think it’s real–because you have torn away what they expect in a movie.
You expect a hero. The main character is an idiot, really. So, he’s not Bruce Willis. He’s not super-intelligent, and rarely does the right thing. But what an interesting character! Again, if you are going for realistic science fiction, your main character may not be the best man or woman on the planet–but they are pivotal and they can learn. A learning character is all you need.
The movie is brilliant on many levels. It works as a science fiction thriller, yes. But it also works as a metaphor for immigration, for refugees, and for the slums that are in South Africa. Anytime a people are empowered over another people, stupid things happen to us. The main character of the movie really is us–as we treat other people as alien. That shift of power is the focus of the film, I think, and makes the most poignant statement. Given the right circumstances, human kindness can become dispassionate, cold power.
And what it takes to regain a sense of humanity, perhaps, is to lose it altogether. But I won’t spoil any of the movie. I’m so thrilled with the movie, I know that sci-fi junkies will love it and I know people who prefer realism and a smart script will love it.
I also know that if you have a passion for oppressed people in the world, and the injustice present in nations around the world who have subjugated another race, then you will also find the reflection of that, and the reflection, maybe, of hope.