Elysium was the kind of movie that had a lot going against it from the moment it was announced. South African director Neill Blomkamp’s debut, District 9, came out of nowhere and stunned critics and audiences alike. It was the kind of science fiction movie that only comes along once or twice a generation; one that managed to have a deep and profound message wrapped up in a stunningly-presented world and some kick-ass action scenes. It even ended up getting nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
So it was perhaps inevitable that Blomkamp’s sophomore effort didn’t live up to the ridiculously high expectations many audiences had for it. But it would be wrong to simply dismiss Elysium just for not being as good as District 9. A budget of $115 million – nearly four times what he had first time around – allowed Blomkamp to get out of Peter Jackson’s shadow and spread his wings, and the result is a confident, creative and completely original film that cemented Blomkamp’s reputation as one of the most interesting directors working today.
Yes, the setup is somehow even less subtle than District 9. A desolate future where the richest one per cent of humanity live on the gleaming space station of the title while the poor and tired masses huddle for warmth on the planet’s ruined surface – gee, I wonder what this is trying to tell us? But when you consider the history of politically-charged science fiction, from Paul Verhoeven’s take-downs of right-wing America in Starship Troopers and RoboCop, all the way back to the fear of the atom bomb which gave birth to Godzilla, you realise that subtle might as well be a dirty word.
Besides it has to be less subtle, because it’s more universal. District 9 was born from its director’s own history in apartheid-era South Africa, but in a world where the Occupy movement went global in a matter of weeks the message in Elysium rings true with a much wider audience. Taken in that context the film feels less like just a big dumb action movie than it does an epic legend of old, with Matt Damon’s protagonist Max Da Costa playing a kind of cross between Siegfried and Robin Hood.
Still, just because they’re playing archetypal roles, doesn’t mean the characters are shallow or simplistic. In fact, Blomkamp’s screenplay does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out the key players, and the cast bring them to life admirably. Matt Damon is more than just a meathead with a machine gun – once he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and given five days left to live, he takes the mantle of revolutionary out of a very human sense of self-preservation.
Many have complained that Alice Braga’s character is underwritten, but her great chemistry with Damon makes Frey and Max’s relationship feel vivid, and refreshingly there’s no enforced romance to manufacture emotions. Jodie Foster faced a lot of backlash for the bizarre French accent she gave to Defence Secretary Delacourt – there’s no defending that, but the performance itself remains great. She’s a cold and calculating woman with a terrifying devotion to her own warped political dogma. But everyone else pales in comparison to Sharlto Copley, who turns up almost unrecognisably as the vile mercenary Kruger and proves that his star-making turn in District 9 wasn’t just a fluke. He’s a terrifying villain, silent as Wikus van der Merwe was verbose, able to speak volumes with piercing stare and bushy beard alone.
Arguably, though, the world of Elysium is as much a star as anybody who occupies it, and in the tradition of truly great science fiction it’s a world that feels like it extends far beyond the edges of the screen. The eponymous space station is undeniably gorgeous in the same sleek, Apple-inspired way as a lot of movies, but it’s the depiction of future Earth that really stands out. Filmed on Bordo Poniente, a genuine former landfill outside Mexico City, the Los Angeles of 2154 is a land of skyscraper-sized favelas with a palpable sense of poverty. Better yet, when the action does ramp up, cinematographer Trent Opaloch frames it beautifully, making everything feel urgent and brutal without ever descending into the awful use of ‘shakeycam’ that has plagued many modern blockbusters.
Visuals are one thing but the narrative is a whole other matter. When said action slows down and you’re given a moment to think, the premise stops making any kind of sense. If the magic pods on Elysium really can cure any ailment, why don’t the people on the station sell them to the people on Earth? They could set any price they wanted, and you could create a labour force that can work on indefinitely. However, picking holes in the premise is counterproductive for two reasons:
Firstly, with the possible exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, just about every sci-fi film stops making sense if you stretch it far enough. Any attempts to apply real-world logic to them are a fruitless endeavour. To reword an old joke by E.B. White, picking apart the logic gaps in a sci-fi movie is like dissecting a frog: few people are interested and the frog dies because of it. Secondly, and more to the point, asking for a realistic portrayal of the future completely misses the point of Blomkamp’s satire. This is an angry film with a lot to say about Western immigration (specifically between the US and Mexico, but the metaphor is a global one), and the only way to highlight the ridiculousness of modern xenophobia is to make the allegory equally ridiculous.
The big criticism constantly levelled against Elysium is its supposed lack of intelligence; the word ‘dumb’ pops up over and over again in its less than favourable reviews. With greater emphasis on action and explosions than its predecessor, this is a more conventional Hollywood summer popcorn-muncher. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still about something, and has a clear message that it trumpets almost constantly: we protect the status quo at our peril.
By Neill Blomkamp’s standards, Elysium is a dumb movie. However: a dumb Neill Blomkamp movie is still a thousand times smarter than some of the dreck we get served every summer.