Sometimes it’s tough to capitalize on a debut movie no matter how many innovative ideas a young filmmaker has whizzing around on the inside of their cranium. Take Neill Blomkamp’s superlative District 9, a searingly exciting sci-fi slice of social commentary that tackled such themes as racism, asylum seekers and poverty while also finding time to throw in a gun that launches pigs at people. Even the most hopeful fan would agree that to follow up such an impressive debut would be quite the task and it’s been frustratingly tough for Blomkamp to break that prawn-shaped glass ceiling – but to his credit, he never stopped trying.
This brings us to Elysium, his 2013 follow up that continues the director’s themes of grim social commentary and picturing the not too distant future as a literal shit heap.
The year is 2154 and the divide between the classes have never been wider – in fact you can measure it as the literal distance between the giant trash ball the Earth has become and the orbiting space station called Elysium that literally houses the wealthy and powerful. As the poor slave away on earth for minimum wage and barely any healthcare, Elysium has the technology to literally cure any ailment be it broken bones or a terminal illness and it’s this that galvanises ex-con Max into trying to get his way into the floating fortress by any means necessary. You see, due to the lack of basic human decency that’s granted to the workers of a droid factory, Max absorbs a fatal amount of radiation that will cause complete and fatal shut down of his organs in five days and all his bosses do is give him some gnarly painkillers and send him home.
Reaching out to his old, criminal contacts in order to get a ticket to Elysium’s medical technology, Max finds he has to perform a heist to download data from the head of a CEO and not only gets a crew and some funky weapons, but has an robot exoskeleton bolted onto his weakened frame to give him a much needed power boost. However, not only does the heist go bad, but the information Max has downloaded into his exoskeleton is proof that Elysium’s Secretary of Defence and terrifying uber-Karen, Delacourt, is planning a coup of the space station to preserve their way of life and so our hero, with only days left to live, has to go on the run and figure out what to do with the secrets he now has.
However, despite finding temporary shelter with childhood sweetheart Frey and her leukaemia suffering daughter, Max finds he has Delacourt’s maniacal pet black ops agent, Kruger, on his tail who is as determined as he is sadistic. Can Max figure out what information he’s carrying and actually figure out how to use it to his advantage before his body finally craps out on him?
Blomkamp has always had an eye for grim futures like no one else, with his settings, themes and tech always feeling grittily tangible no matter how outlandish the concept; but ever since District 9 wowed the crap out of me back in 2009, the filmmaker has been seemingly unable to capitalize on his raw talent for world building thanks to the fact that his subsequent movies couldn’t whip up a plot that did justice the sweeping social commentary.
With that being said, while the director’s second feature turned out to be noticably a few steps below his first film, there’s still lots to like about Elysium with the best thing predictably being the dusty world and the clunky, yet feasible tech he has created by essentially filming the earth based parts of the movie in a literal rubbish dump on the outskirts of Mexico City. Creating a world arguably more bleak than the slums of District 9, Blomkamp uses this disturbingly familiar future world to draw attention to problems we’re struggling with right now, with the dire shape of modern healthcare being the most obvious but with other themes of class, exploitation of workers and immigration being just as prevalent.
However, as I mentioned earlier, its just a crying shame that Elysium doesn’t have stronger characters to carry such an admirable subject matter to the heights it deserves and instead the movie struggles with a second half messier than the trash dusted neighbourhoods that Matt Damon’s reluctant hero trudges through while oddly resembling an android Bruce Willis. Max has a character arc you can predict simply looking at the poster, chiefly because they’ve cast Matt Damon in the role and no amount of shaven heads and grumpy attitude can cover the fact that the dying ex-con will obviously do the decent thing in the end. The same goes for Elysium’s villains who couldn’t be drawn with more broader lines if they walked around with name tags that read “Hi, I’m The Baddie”. Jodie Foster’s classist politician seems to be channeling Margret Thatcher, which is an admittedly shrewd choice, but it also means that her power suit and steely glare comes with a weirdly implacable accent which ends up being more distracting than anything else. Also, despite being the kind of walking warning sign of dangerous elitism that orders the firing of missiles at ships full of kids hoping to run Elysium’s defence systems to get “illegal” healthcare, Delacourt, is weirdly forgettable and is even overthrown by the script seemingly to squeeze in a last minute replacement in the shape of Sharlto Copely’s grimy maniac, who is more of a physical match for our exo-suited hero. Copley, famous for playing the spineless bureaucrat at the heart of District 9 performs an impressive 180° in bringing the truly reprehensible Kruger to the screen, but whether he’s rasping in constant, South African slang, or leering over Alice Braga’s underutilised nurse, his viciously hyperactive nutjob often feels like he’s literally shot his way in from a Mad Max movie. But what’s weirder is that the script has him suddenly want to become “king of the space station” after a slight attitude adjustment after he recovers from having his face blown off by a wayward grenade – it’s the future, remember? Technology, bitch – and while its thematic for the attack dogs of the rich to eventually turn against their masters, it just feels like the film is trying to shoehorn in a more traditional final act grudge match to close it out.
I had high hopes for Blomkamp’s sophomore effort when it came out and while it could hardly be described as “bad”, the fact that the script can’t seem to balance the politics with the legitimately impressive kapows and all the bitching firearms is a massive shame.
As I previously stated, no one can shoot a garbage-strewn, dystopian shit-heap quite like Blomkamp, but Elysium just doesn’t have the story telling moxy to have it rise above the heap.