(3.5 / 5)
It’s probably premature on the strength of one film to call a filmmaker a genius.
Orson Welles might have earned that plaudit based on Citizen Kane or maybe Jean-Luc Goddard for A Bout De Souffle, Rob Reiner for This Is Spinal Tap, Pajit Ray for Pather Panchali, or Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. David Lynch. John Huston. Nicholas Roeg. Nicholas Ray. Terrence Malick.
In any case, what all these films suggested was that great things lay ahead for their directors (perhaps a self-defeating prophecy in the case of Welles); the same can be said of South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp and District 9.
One of the few instances I can think of where a director made their break into Hollywood directly through sci-fi (even Sir Ridley Scott started with period drama The Duellists), Blomkamp’s 2009 debut was genre with a social conscience, set in a modern-day Jo’burg where interstellar refugees have become the victim of a new apartheid. A work of social science fiction in the vein of The Man in the White Suit or Minority Report, District 9 sort to examine the social issues that had plagued South Africa – institutional racism, for instance – through the lens of an alien world.
Receiving four Oscar noms, including Best Picture, it provided a breakout role for the unknown (and still underutilized) Sharlto Copley as Wikus, an Afrikaner bureaucrat forced to come to terms with his own prejudice. Four years on, the two have teamed up again for Elysium.
Just as its predecessor was an allegory for, among other things, segregation, Elysium similarly engages with two major issues of our time, namely immigration and universal healthcare. Set on Earth of the none-too-distant future – 141 years down the line to be exact – our planet is polluted, impoverished, and desperately overpopulated.
As the have-nots, like Matt Damon’s protagonist Max, slave away on terra firma under the control of polite but tyrannical droids, the haves – most notably prissy businessman John Carlyle, played by William Fichtner – live a life of luxury aboard the space habitat Elysium. Content to spend his days as a factory drone, an industrial accident leaves Max with just days to live and forces him on a desperate end-run to the orbiting paradise.
The plot of Elysium hinges on the existence of advanced medical devices known as Med-Pods, which have the ability to heal seemingly any sickness or injury. While the masses throng on the world below – Los Angeles has become a seedier, more ramshackle version of Mega-City One – on the torus above, the privileged few live off their backs.
Smiling robotic civil servants dismiss the excuses of the downtrodden, interpreting sarcasm as a cause to dole out mood-influencing drugs – the attempt of corporatism to put a human face on exploitation, but with none of the accountability of flesh and blood.
Meanwhile, Jodie Foster’s Secretary of Defense up on Elysium employs any methods necessary – including the unauthorized deployment of feral sleeper agent Kruger, played by Copley – to ensure the poor remain on Earth “where they belong”.
The political subtext here isn’t particularly subtle, but it more or less works. Max’s attempts to make it to Elysium and save his skin at any cost could serve to make him an unlikeable character were it not for Damon’s relatable every-man presence in the role. Always an actor capable of doing a lot with very little – just see The Talented Mr. Ripley or The Good Shepherd for proof of this – Damon manages to sell the character’s pain, his determination, with nothing more than a level gaze.
Additional complications come in the form of Max’s former best friend, Frey (Alice Braga), and her dying, doe-eyed kid. With its strangely idyllic flashbacks of Max and Frey as kids Elysium treads on the verge of saccharine – one scene involving Max and the eight-year old’s attempt to tell him a story coming particularly close – but the relationship between the leading man and woman is remains refreshingly un-milked for romance and the constant threat of Kruger prevents the film from becoming bogged down in family drama.
Though initially out for himself, Max – by a mechanism I won’t spoil – finds himself cast as the would-be savior of mankind. Strapped to an exoskeleton that both increases his strength and, at points, simply keeps him on his feet, Max is given the capability to right the status quo. In a world where technology is used to keep people down, to keep them in fear, Max comes to embody the militarized proletariat.
Though the ever-talented Foster is fairly wasted as a xenophobic, tight-ass corporate agent – essentially the role she played in Inside Man with an added side of sanctimony – it clearly establishes that this is a society of binaries: rich/poor, self-interested/self-sacrificing. Only Kruger, a borderline psychotic outcast, transcends this boundary.
A bearded mercenary who takes simple pleasure in violence, Kruger – with his robes and his katana – feels like a throwback to a different era. Copley inhabits the part with gleeful ferocity and sardonic menace, from his detonation of an explosive shuriken stuck in a victim’s chest (“It’s only a flesh wound!”) to his coaxing of a child to look away so he can beat their parent. Though Kruger apparently wasn’t written for him, it feels fitting that Blomkamp’s former compatriot should have the showiest role in the piece.
While it lacks the subtlety or the ambiguity to stand along side, say, Heath Ledger’s Joker (though it compares favorably with Raoul Silva in Skyfall), Kruger is a dynamic villain in a film that might otherwise feel schematic. The whole plot, after all, is set on rails from Earth to Elysium and Max himself is clean cut, his arc archetypal, as it were – from self-interested to self-sacrificing.
From his high-tech yet believable arsenal – which includes, semi-topically, drones – to his guttural accent, Kruger provides a necessary feeling of grit when, surrounded by the paradisiacal beauty of Elysium, things are in danger of getting a touch aesthetic.
In keeping with auteur theory, Blomkamp not only directed the film but wrote it – each aspect is as good as the other. From the dusty slums of future L.A. to the appropriately verdant fields of Elysium, Blomkamp has a real feel for whatever he turns his camera to. While Earth has a sense of gritty reality to it, the fully rendered environment of Elysium, rich and pristine, often resembles a matte painting, not a criticism of the effect so much as their serene unreality.
That Elysium seems so close to its namesake, a magical place where any problem can be solved, ultimately, however, comes to undermine the film’s political message. Elysium’s denouement may be uplifting, but it’s a purely symbolic gesture: though it feels right in context, there’s no reason to believe the new state of affairs is at all sustainable. Practicality may be dull, but it bears thinking about.
In this regard, Elysium feels more like a fable, a high-octane, politically-charged fable, but one that never quite manages to reconcile the demands of “social realism” with its hopeful message.
The idea that one man can make a difference, that the little guy can win out, are messages grounded in the American consciousness (the country of whom the film’s critiques may be most immediately relevant), but there will be those that read it as liberal propaganda or, alternately, perversely even, as an anti-immigration tale (ironically those who would otherwise likely praise Elysium’s essentially Christian symbolism).
Still, beneath the film’s grand utopian ambitions, there are strong characters and a resonant story at play here in a world both like and unalike our own.
Not quite the brave new world we were promised, but brave enough. Elysium might not live up to District 9‘s exquisite blend of social study and science fiction – the issues on display here are arguably more politically complex – but its a bold and entertaining, if occasionally muddled piece of genre film-making.