Wednesday, September 30, 2009
For a Johannesburger by upbringing, I loved the sly in-joke of calling the aliens "prawns". For indeed, there actually are alien prawns in Johannesburg. Any Jo'burger will have a fund of stories about the mysterious and frightening "Parktown Prawn".
These awesome creatures - of terrifying size and menace - suddenly appeared as if from another galaxy in Johannesburg's lush northern suburbs in the 1960s. The eponymous Parktown was then an inner-city garden suburb, established originally by Edwardian gold-mining plutocrats. As the suburbs and their heavily irrigated and exotically stocked gardens spread northwards, so the prawn followed.
They reached our suburb as I reached my late teens. They arrived literally in an infestation - suddenly they were everywhere (sometimes even in your bed, or underwear drawer - a friend's sister found one in her swimsuit crotch as she put it on).
This is what they look like:
Vaguely prawn-like in appearance (and size - this in an era when Mocambiquan prawns regularly reached 9" - not like the tiddlers one gets in M&S today). They do have an attraction to swimming pools (hence I suppose their nickname). They jump quite high, and usually jump towards you when surprised, violently hissing. Frequently they land on your shirt or shoulder, where their barbed legs hook, making them impossible to brush off. Attempting to do so causes them to discharge a foul stinking dark liquid all over you.
They also tend to be more active at night. There are stories of people spending the night in their cars rather than their bedrooms in order to avoid late night interruptions.
They are apparently intelligent beings - in their own strange insect way they seem to interact with other species and each other. As I said, when jumping they have a tendency to come towards you. My friend Mark once heard his boxer Honey (usually quite a ferocious, alpha female dog) whimpering outside. When he went to check on her, she was cowering in a corner, surrounded by three Prawns pinning her down. Our Jack Russell did go after them, but he was very careful to hold them in his mouth with their spraying end pointing outwards. His 'attack' was also notably quite tentative for a terrier of his class.
Urban legend had it that these creatures were the result of a biology experiment at the University of the Witwatersrand which went wrong (the University being just over the hill from Parktown). Alas, the truth is more prosaic.
King Crickets are a distinctive insect species of southern africa, and the Parktown Prawn's biologically correct name is Libanasidus vittatus. Specimens were collected in the subtropical lowland town of Barberton in the Transvaal over 100 years ago by the Natural History Museum's William Forsell Kirkby. The current theory is that the suburban gardens of Johannesburg created optimal environmental conditions for the cricket to flourish on the highveld - the suburbs are generally regarded (by Johannesburgers) as forming the largest man-made forest on the planet, in a region which would naturally be savannah.
Anyhoo, this all takes me a long way from the film, which is generally excellently exciting. The exotic location and re-imagining of the aliens as shipwrecked outcasts rather than hostile invaders is original and works well. The film has its faults (it doesn't develop or even sustain the racial theme it posits), and harsher souls than I would argue that while it's heart is in the right place its racial attitudes do not stand close analysis (Nigeria has already banned it). Although taking place in contemporary South Africa, the government has clearly delegated dealing with the alien problem to a white dominated evil multinational. The government itself remains entirely absent from the movie.
However, the story's set up is so imaginative and original, the performances are so good, and the story rattles along at such an engaging pace one has to applaud. It's definitely a very different and very successful take on the alien blockbuster genre.