The absence of humanity is the truly heartbreaking part of this film. A lazy screenwriter would team up the heartless xenophobe Wikus (Copley) with an alien who shows him how awful he's been to another species, but really Christopher the alien is not a great example of heroism or virtue. He's merely another somewhat selfish individual who wants to escape, even at the expense of his fellow intergalactic castaways. And as the smarmy jackass human is slowly transformed into a "prawn," he doesn't suddenly become a hero and the embodiment of the alien's culture (like the protagonist of, say, Avatar) -- he still manages to bash in a friendly alien's head with a rock. In this world the movie crafts for us (read: the way we actually treat each other most of the time) everyone seems to suck, with no plot-driven need to change. There's literally only one good human in the film...Copley's wife. She's the one bastion of good on a seemingly uniform planet of evil, and Copley even refers to her as his "angel."
After a tense attempt to fly up to the mother ship that has been parked above Johannesburg for two decades and a brief mech-warrior battle, Wikus is inevitably left behind by Christopher and his son. They promise to return...in three years...to cure him of the mutation.
The film ends with the "angel" wife finding a metal flower sculpture on her doorstep, which the audience is left to assume is from her husband. Then we see a "prawn," right as the film cuts to black, shaping a metal flower. Sure, this is a little reveal that the Afrikaner has become one of the oppressed aliens, but it serves a bigger purpose. Up to this point, there has been nothing beautiful in this film; nothing is created, no one is redeemed, and there doesn't seem to be much hope for the human race or the alien one. This last moment, a single speck of beauty literally made out of garbage, is heart-aching.
Decent enough symbolism in a compelling enough sci-fi framework does what good sci-fi does: reflect something about the real world. But director Neill "This should have been Halo" Blomkamp steps in and hits you with an extra nut-punch. The film is shot somewhat in a mockumentary format, with interviews and B-roll interspersed with the real-time events. Some of the B-roll of native Afrikaners yelling hatred towards the aliens was revealed as footage of actual non-actor humans directing their hatred towards other humans during the apartheid era. That's right, just like a good horror movie, the villain (racism and humans being horrible) jumped off the screen and is in the real world, right behind you!
We leave this film hating humanity a little and hoping that Christopher Johnson and son bring an armada back and wipe humanity out. Then, when we find out that part of the abysmal behavior in the film was taken from real footage, we realize how plausible and likely the grimy shanty-town full of alien visitors is, and we begin to actually wish for human annihilation. (Just a wee bit, for like a minute. NO DON'T CALL ME A COUNSELOR!)
This film is the reverse-Emmerich, using aliens to teach a human audience about how undeserving of survival we can be when we act like scumbags.
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