Upon hearing much positive buzz for this movie, coupled with Swerb's recommendation, I decided to check it out today. I read Andrew Jefchak's review and like many people, I presumed he was just a fuddy-duddy who didn't get "real" sci-fi. Of course this was a pre-judgement, having not seen the film. But with all the good word-of-mouth, I was confidently looking forward to having my prejudice vindicated. Alas, I should have learned my lesson from Watchmen. Though this time, I was unpleasantly surprised.
First, I'll start with the good: the special effects are quite impressive and blended into the movie well. I especially liked the alien battle-suit thingy in that it mimicked their physiology (the mouth tendrils on the suit were a nice touch). As far as it goes, the aliens themselves were relatively well conceived - I'd give them a B, maybe B+. Good, but not great.
Also, I kind of liked the main character Wikus. He seemed like a realistic, albeit overly cheery kind of bureaucrat. I thought his reaction to his predicament was fairly well-handled.
Also, I can't help admitting to a certain emotional reaction to the alien father/son dynamic and I was definitely rooting for them at the end. But as I'll explain, the ending was ultimately unsatisfying apart from this aspect.
So, onto the bad, which encompases pretty much everything else about the movie.
Let me preface this by saying that I know Swerb is going to dismiss many of my complaints as nitpicks or me being overly technical. We've had this discussion before (see Matrix discussion, War of the Worlds, etc - I'm too lazy to link to them). You'll just have to decide for yourself if my complaints have merit, I guess.
I guess I'll start with the biggest complaint, one that has no real technical component to it: the fact that the movie takes an encounter with fucking aliens as "no big deal". It's just an accepted thing. Granted, we're just peeking in 20 years after they land, but I want - no, need - some kind of reference to how this encounter has changed humanity as a whole, not just this one small area of the world. That's my major complaint with this film: it just feels so parochial. And that's just unforgivable when your subject matter is something that by all rights should be nothing short of the single greatest discovery/event in the history of civilization!
So in a way, Jefchak is right: they use this backdrop as an excuse to stage an action movie. It feels like a waste to me. They don't explore at all what it means for us to have had this monumental visit. And yes, I get that it's a metaphor for slavery/oppression/apartheid/name-your-injustice, but it's by turns too heavy-handed and at the same time too lightly visited.
So that's the big one. But there are lots of ancillary, follow-on questions and issues: what about the rest of the world governments? Are we really supposed to believe that the rest of the world is just letting South Africa be the sole determiners of what happens to another alien species on our planet? And that we also would allow a Blackwater-like unit (MNU) run the entire show as far as their relocation? Okay, that much I can at least see as legitimate social commentary but the overall absence of any wider political involvement is just too much to take.
Okay, so you might say, sure, the rest of the world sees no value in the Prawns, so they leave their care with the people for whom they are directly creating the problem. But of course, I have a problem with that too! Exactly how is it that a spacefaring civlization has seemingly nothing to offer - that they are essentially illiterate lower-class citizens right out of the gate? Except for the alien protagonist Christopher Johnson, of course, who inexplicably has the brainpower of all the other Prawns put together!
But back to my previous point: I just can't believe that the aliens have nothing to teach us, that we're not doing in-depth interviews with them (we clearly can somehow understand their language, and they ours, in some kind of Han/Chewbacca-esque way). They seem to have no culture or identity of their own, except for advanced weapons that they apparently never saw fit to use against us. This is another monumental crime that the film perpetrates. They don't even try to explain it away with a half-hearted supposition like "maybe it's a ship full of uneducated prisoners" - at least then I could grudgingly accept it and move on.
On a related note, I'm not buying their explanation of why we can't use their technology - that it's designed around their DNA. What a cop-out. Granted, that was a major plot device, but I refuse to believe that even if we couldn't immediately shoot one of their guns, we wouldn't gain any useful knowledge from 20 fucking years of study! Furthermore, how is it that we are somehow such an incurious species that we just let their fucking spaceship hover above Johannesburg for 20 years and don't carry out ongoing scientific investigations?
Moving on from that idea, how is it that one tiny little vial of black juice can power an entire fucking ship? But wait, is it fuel, or is it a bio-agent that turns people into Prawns? Apparently it's both but no one seems confused or even slightly interested in this fact. That actually hits on one of my lowbrow sci-fi pet peeves: this idea that all aliens have DNA and it must be some simple matter to intermingle human and alien DNA. I guess if I can overlook the fact that Prawns are essentially humanoid, I should overlook this, but it still bugs me a bit: all life on Earth has DNA, but there's no reason suspect or even hope that any alien life would. Minor quibble I suppose but indicative of the overall sloppiness in exploration of ideas that this movie perpetrates.
Finally, the ending: while as I said, I was happy that Christopher and son made it to the ship and got away, it was maddening in the extreme that we got absolutely no explanation of how he was able to get them out of there, why he appears to be the only Prawn capable of doing so, or why, if they could have gotten out, they hadn't done so much, much earlier, given the living conditions that humans subjected them to? Furthermore, they end the movie with him leaving 2+ million of his brethren in the lurch. I suppose that's so they can set up a sequel. But again, if the idea was to abscond and amass a fleet so they can come back and get revenge or stage a rescue, that opens up so many questions: why wait so long? If there are other Prawns out there to provide support for said rescue, why haven't they rescued them already? The movie never even touches on any of these possibilities and for this I cannot forgive it.
I cannot give this movie any thumbs, only the finger.