Back in 2009 South-African native Neill Blomkamp skyrocketed to the top of the action director A-list with his feature debut ‘District 9’. An expansion on Blomkamp’s short film ‘Alive in Joburg’; the relatively low-budget ‘District 9’ ($30 million) became the year’s biggest sleeper hit and earned a Best Picture nomination for it’s aggressively original premise, believable down and dirty sci-fi settings, politically-charged themes (xenophobia, military-industrial complex), un-apologetic gritty tone, 80’s-style ultra-violent action, and hearty emotional depth. Coming out the same summer as the brain-less clunker ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, Blomkamp’s nihilistic but endearing tale considering the plight of alien-immigrants was a powerful demonstration that a great true science-fiction tale can still be told in this modern age while still delivering on intense visceral action.
With ‘District 9’ a modern sci-fi/action masterpiece, expectations are reasonably high for Blomkamp’s higher budgeted ($115 million) follow-up ‘Elysium’. This time around Blomkamp takes audiences to the year 2154; where there are two classes of people that exist. The wealthy live on an advanced space station called Elysium; in which they enjoy life without disease due to Med-Pods that can miraculously cure any sickness or bodily ailments. Meanwhile, the poor live on a desolate poverty-stricken, polluted, and overpopulated Earth.
The film opens with a sequence depicting a group of Earth-people attempting to land on Elysium in order to use these Med-Pods, with only a few succeeding due to the space station’s deadly defense systems. This sets up the stakes for the primary narrative; which focuses on an ex-con factory worker named Max (Matt Damon). After an industrial accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation, leaving him with only five days to live, Max (along with the addition of bio-implants and a steel exoskeleton) must team-up with a group of smugglers to get to the space-bound Elysium in order to save himself. Along the way Max faces opposition in the form of the corrupt Elysium Secretary of Defense Jessica (Jodie Foster) and a vicious psychopathic mercenary named Kruger played by ‘District 9’ leading man Sharlto Copley.
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past two decades, the premise alone (along with the harrowing opening sequence) should provide a big clue that Elysium and Earth are essentially allegories for the U.S. and Mexico (which is where this was filmed in), which provides the film an environment to explore geo-political themes such as immigration policies, class warfare, and healthcare. This intriguing premise is pretty faithful to the core purpose of sci-fi, which is to use futuristic settings as a backdrop to provide commentary on the present. Even Blomkamp himself commented that Elysium is not a future story but a “today” story.
Focusing on the visuals and production value alone the film is a marvel. With more money in his pocket, Blomkamp spared no expense in putting a lot of creative energy into making cool futuristic ‘Call of Duty’-esque guns and gadgets while still showcasing his talent in building believable settings and worlds. From AK-47-like rifles with exploding rounds, robotic guards, surveillance disk droids, and energy shields; plenty of fantastic creations are thrown at the screen but enough realistic design is implemented that they feel right in place with the universe created. The Earth slum-environment directly echoes the trashy poverty areas of Johannesburg in ‘District 9’; although it does come off as a bit glossy in comparison. The CGI is really gorgeous (especially in the space shots showing Elysium orbiting the Earth) and just like in ‘District 9’, it purely serves to convey it’s setting and rarely feels like it is taking precedence over the story. The action is suitably visceral despite succumbing to that annoying shaky-cam technique at times (something ‘District 9’ refreshingly avoided) and Max’s powerful exoskeleton rarely taken to it’s full potential.
Blomkamp excels in the visual department but the whole experience comes off as a major comedown from his stellar debut. A lot of elements in ‘Elysium’ feel directly recycled from ‘District 9’ such as the trashy crowded slums, evil big-government/corporation men in suits, psycho mercenaries, liberal use of blood (in one scene Kruger’s face is blown off by a grenade), to even Max learning to be less selfish much like Wikus’ character arc from ‘District 9’.
Unfortunately, what is not carried over from ‘District 9’ is the emotional punch. The characters are extremely forgettable; with Copley providing the only memorable performance as the deadly and creepy samurai sword-wielding mercenary Kruger (a complete reversal from the timid and mild-mannered Wikus). Damon displays enough charisma as Max but feels completely miscast and the under-utilized Jodie Foster talks in a distractedly strange accent that makes the thematic U.S./Mexico parables laughable at times (not only that but Jessica is given a completely disappointing send-off). Wagner Moura’s cartoonish turn as the gangster Spider endangers the realistic atmosphere while Max’s old flame Frey feels more like a plot device that only exist in order to guilt him into helping a sick “precious” little girl in an embarrassingly blatant form of lazy and cheap audience manipulation.
Combine this with un-even pacing and a weak third act containing a very problematic resolution, ‘Elysium’ delivers on visual goodness but barely registers when it comes to tugging heartstrings and lacks thematic bite (everything gets lost and muddled in favor of a generic man vs. THE MAN conflict). Hopefully Blomkamp’s next feature ‘Chappie’ will not play it as safe and injects some more fresh ideas and plot elements.
If Blomkamp keeps recycling ideas, techniques, and aesthetics from ‘District 9’, then he’s going to be in terrible danger of looking like a one-trick pony. Remember M. Night Shyamalan?