DIRECTED BY: Neill Blomkamp
WRITTEN BY: Neill Blomkamp
PEW PEW: Blomkamp does not disappoint with the action. There is everything to love about his brand of violence.
CAT FOOD: The film is replete with commentary on class war, brainwashing, and immigration crises.
As stated before, Neill Blomkamp is easily one of my favourite directors. When I sit down to watch one of his feature films, I know I’m going to be in for a unique experience, with exceptional visuals, engaging characters, and surging, edge-of-your-seat action that waits the entire film to blossom into something quite beautiful. His second full-length film, Elysium, is no exception to this rule.
The film is based in 2154. Mankind has so overpopulated and polluted the earth that its richest, most privileged denizens took to the stars, constructing a perfect habitat on space station Elysium. In this perfect society, people have everything they want at their fingertips, up to and including instant medical care, while the poor underclass suffers in dense slums rife with crime and disease.
Our hero, Max, a recovering convict with dreams of taking his childhood crush up to Elysium, works ‘on the line’ at a droid factory, where he is involved in a workplace accident that leaves him dying of radiation poisoning. With five days left to live, Max must ally himself with underground smugglers who fit him with special implants and a powerful mechanised exoskeleton. After a botched attempt to upload data from an Elysian’s head and into his own, Max finds himself on the run from a ruthless band of government sleeper agents.
Now, a lot of people viewed this film as a disappointing follow-up to Blomkamp’s first film, the magnificent District 9, and it most certainly isn’t as perfect as that picture, but I feel Elysium undeserving of the term ‘disappointing.’ Let’s get the ‘bad’ out of the way first, cause why dwell on it? The film has two flaws, in my opinion, that hold it back from living up to its predecessor.
The first, most important flaw is with the narrative. While it is quite engaging and lends itself well to the intense action sequences, I found it relied more on cookie-cutter American-style action tropes. In a sense, the film played out more like any one of the loose Philip K. Dick adaptations that are on the market today. Take your pick. The world is constructed more to suit this than to enrich the narrative. Gone are the starkly different alien characters of District 9 — replaced by the all-to-familiar ‘dude has top secret information and is wanted by the government’ characters.
The second flaw is that Elysium almost feels like Blomkamp is bending a little bit for Hollywood with this one. I mean, I’m all for change and progression, so it doesn’t bother me, but it is odd to see instantly recognisable faces like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster being District 9 didn’t even have a cast billing on its home video cover. That’s not to say Matt Damon was bad by any means (he’s pretty highly regarded by this blog), and, while I’ve never been a Jodie Foster fan, I’ll admit that she was perfect to hate (as were most of her associates). I’m just saying that having heavier names and more recognisable faces took away a bit of the magic that District 9 held.
With that out of the way, however, and a minor lowering of the film’s rating, I still grant it Pew Pew Cat Food Approval. Of Blomkamp’s many gifts, his uncanny ability to pace a film so that even seemingly mindless action is suspenseful is one of his best, and the visual effects during these sequences are stunning to say the least. For instance, when Max takes on Kruger (played by the mind-bogglingly talented Sharlto Copley) for the first time, the enemy agent employs a circular energy shield that is quite unexpected for such a gritty-looking dude, but it still somehow fits into the clash between paradise and barrio. Also particularly appreciated is the complete removal of Kruger’s entire fucking face (like, half his damn head with it too!) by grenade.
There is plenty of cat food here too. While a little underdeveloped (this would have been great as a miniseries — it would have been spectacular to explore a possible affluenza experience by the population of the space station, for instance), the clash between classes and the paranoia over immigration is ever so relevant now. I find it particularly interesting that the first language we hear on Earth is Spanish (unfortunately associated with the lower class in parts of the modern United States) and one of the first we hear on Elysium is French (often associated with the upper class). There is also a definite white wash in the space station.
Like most science fiction films with intelligent social commentary, Elysium employs grey morality. For instance, not everyone in Elysium is evil. Faran Tahir’s Patel seems to be on the level, if undermined and ‘just doing his job.’ And our heroes are mostly from gangs that seem to be motivated by their own gains. It seems in the melee, the only forces that are entirely evil are the Kruger-led sleeper agents, and the only heroes who are motivated by the greater good are Max, his friend Julio, and his crush, Frey (well-played by Alice Braga) and her daughter.
My final verdict is that the film is every bit the exciting statement we’re used to from Neill Blomkamp, but that it required a larger scope than it got in order to convey its entire vision. It’s a really good game of cat-and-mouse with masterful effects and a few beautifully, human moments.