When Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9, arrived in 2009, it felt like one of the single most exciting moments in recent film history. This was science-fiction with a voice, science-fiction with a purpose, and science-fiction with an utterly singular, immediately gripping style. A genre co-opted by Hollywood blockbusters, with the same small set of narrative and visual parameters churned out over and over again ad naseum, had been forcefully reclaimed by a filmmaker with a deep, passionate understanding of what science-fiction can achieve, and fans and filmgoers rewarded that vision with universal critical and commercial success. For at least the briefest of moments, wickedly smart and endlessly thrilling science-fiction with a social conscious was popular again, and that was a tremendously invigorating moment to live through as a lover of cinema.
With triple the budget and two iconic movie stars headlining, Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium, is bigger than District 9 in just about every way, but it feels an awful lot less significant, both as an isolated piece of filmmaking and a part of the current cinematic landscape. The film is by no means bad, and probably a rung or two above mediocre, but while its visuals and technical merits are uniformly remarkable, Elysium as a whole lacks the spark of great filmmaking, stumbling constantly over its own thematic interests and failing entirely to produce genuine emotional investment in the heart of the viewer. I respect Blomkamp utterly for his obvious desire to say something meaningful with his work, to explore serious sociopolitical issues in a genre well equipped to do so, but this time out, the pieces fail to fall into alignment. Even if the effort is entirely noble and respectable, which it very much is, the finished product falls fairly severely short.
The film is set in the year 2154, when an overpopulated, ravaged earth has led the wealthiest humans to build their own, private ‘habitat’ among the stars: Elysium, a space station that provides a Utopian means of living, wherein there is no sickness, poverty, or want. Earth, however, has been left in shambles, leading groups of people around the planet to try emigrating to the orbiting paradise, only to be confronted by Elysium’s strict, deadly security and immediate deportation policies.
Protagonist Max (Matt Damon) has dreamed of travelling to Elysium since he was a young boy, but as an adult, he has led a life of crime and is now working through a lengthy parole. Employed at a robotics factory, Max suffers a fatal bout of radiation during a manufacturing accident and, with only five days to live, decides he must make it to Elysium, where advanced medical equipment could easily cure him.
What surprises and disappoints me most about Elysium is that, for all the different science-fiction inspirations Blomkamp draws upon, he is most derivative of himself. I do not generally like analyzing one work by comparing it to another, but it is impossible to ignore how completely Elysium plays like District 9 with a different coat of paint. The basic premise illustrates a broad socioeconomic split between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ the protagonist is cursed with a serious affliction, and getting back to normal requires making his way from one economic ‘zone’ to the other. The direction is flipped, and apartheid is swapped out with illegal immigration as the issue of note, but other than that, the set-up is effectively identical, and only grows increasingly similar as the film moves along – to the point where Max’s ultimate motivations and decisions, like protagonist Wikus van de Merwe’s in District 9, revolve around the well-being of an underprivileged parent and child (albeit human, not alien, this time around). That is only scratching the surface – Elysium winds up feeling so narratively derivative of District 9, in fact, that bringing up the comparisons at all feels uncomfortably like giving away spoilers.
But doing so is necessary, I feel, to expressing what might be the primary source of disappointment viewers are likely to have with the film: It comes from a director we know and love for creating a film that, while filled with various science-fiction inspirations, landed with the powerful, unexpected force of a bold, original masterwork. It is not that Elysium fails to live up to that impossibly high standard that bothers me so much, but that it plays like Blomkamp treading water, repeating a story he already told and providing watered-down versions of many of the best beats along the way in service of thematic material that feels almost entirely flat and unengaging.
Flat because, much as Blomkamp’s intentions seem earnest and genuine, there is not one single, solitary ounce of nuance or subtlety to Elysium’s social allegory. I cannot even call the film’s social consciousness particularly intelligent, because what it is has to offer barely even qualifies as ‘thin.’ The film simply plays like an angry, thoughtless screed against rich people, and while I hate how much that makes me sound like a heartless conservative pundit – issues of income inequality, immigration, and sociopolitical representations of both are of the absolute utmost importance and should not ever be dismissed or belittled – there just isn’t anything of real substance on display here. The stark haves/have-nots premise is utterly black-and-white, with every last person who lives on Elysium being uniformly demonized to absurd degrees – evil, unsympathetic, or just plain tone-deaf to the conditions of life back on earth – while all the impoverished earth-bound characters are painted with extreme sympathy.
The privileged antagonists are so ridiculously cartoonish, in fact, that William Fichtner’s character – a businessman frustrated at being made to oversee factory production back on earth – becomes angry when a poor person breathes in his vicinity, because he truly believes he is too good to breathe the same air as someone in a ‘lesser’ economic class. It is a beat I could not frankly believe the film trotted out, not only because it is as stupid a cliché as exists for ‘rich versus poor’ storytelling, but because it says absolutely nothing meaningful about the issues at hand. And so it goes for all the film’s villains, both major and minor – those hoping Jodie Foster might have something meaty to play will be severely disappointed, as her pompous, ‘us versus them’ Defense Secretary character strays dangerously close to outright parody.
Moreover, the allegory itself is such a complete 1:1 representation of the present-day issue that nothing interesting or revelatory can ever be said on the matter. The reason to do grand sci-fi allegory like this is to look at the issue in ways reality does not offer, but even with the sheen of CGI space stations, Elysium in no way does that, because it presents a situation that is essentially identical to what we have now, in present-day 2013, albeit with any and all nuance or shades of grey removed. There is a ‘bad’ or difficult place to live – Earth, stand in for Mexico, Africa, the Middle East, or any other impoverished place people may wish to escape from – and a ‘good’ place – Elysium, stand-in for the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc. – and inhabitants of the bad place want to get to the good place, while people living in the good place demonize, lie about, and threaten the opposing group before killing/arresting/deporting them should they happen to successfully cross the border. That is not a metaphor. It barely qualifies as allegory. It is just the current situation of illegal immigration, simplified and dumbed down into the most easily digestible terms possible. The unintentional result of doing so is that the entire issue is made to look silly, and Blomkamp’s theoretically reasonable and humanistic stance – that health and happiness should not be the exclusive right of the wealthy – suddenly seems much more radical and much less substantial than it actually is.
I simply do not understand the point of exploring this subject matter with such a thin veil overhead – if the goal is to tackle the issues of today directly, why not just do that, and make a more immediate, real-world immigration story? For the science-fiction allegory to matter, those elements have to add something to the discussion, and here, I never once felt like they did. District 9 could not, of course, be accused of rampant subtlety, but there was nuance to how it presented its apartheid allegory, and by making the oppressed characters of that story literal aliens – automatically adding shadings to the antagonists, who would naturally be fearful of the prawns, and giving all the human characters a complex and understandable moral dilemma to grapple with – the film was able to unfold its themes in such a way that they could be applied to any instance of social or political oppression (or to humanity’s basic capacity for hateful, despotic actions). District 9 was and is a great film because it approached and said something about our real-world problems in creative, unexpected ways, ways that could only be expressed through science-fiction. Elysium is not nearly as eloquent or intelligent, and while the anger it expresses about our world’s growing inequality is absolutely valid and palpable, no conclusions are made or points reached that the viewer has not already discovered for themselves countless times in the past.
Yet the film’s most crippling problem, for me at least, is the lack of a compelling protagonist. I could handle the heavy-handed messaging and mostly empty thematic core if I felt true emotional attachment to the main character or those around him, but for me, Max is a total blank. He has his small set of character traits established early on – as a kid, he really wanted to go to Elysium; as an adult, he did many bad things and is now trying to walk the straight and narrow; and once made sick, he finds he really does not want to die – but that is where his characterization ends, full stop. Max’s arc is slight, his decisions frequently forced upon him, and I think he needed several more passes during the scripting phase before he had any chance of being a rich enough character to build a film around. More than blank, I find the character empty, a vessel for things to happen to and the story to evolve around, rather than an interesting figure worth following for his own distinct merits.
And this is the biggest difference, both qualitatively and literally, from District 9. That film had one of the ‘haves’ as the protagonist, with Wikus van de Merwe coming from the ‘privileged’ human side of things, while Max is very much a ‘have-not,’ living his entire life in abject poverty. He is therefore portrayed in a better, more flattering light from the beginning, and while that is a hypothetically different dynamic for this film to explore in contrast to District 9, Blomkamp relies so heavily on the audience’s presumed investment in Max’s unprivileged station in life that he forgets to make us invest in Max as an actual human being. There was a hook to Wikus that went beyond his social contrast to the prawns – he was a tremendously flawed, multi-layered character, one whose many faults and wrongdoings made him fascinating, and whose work ethic and devotion to his family made him endearing. One felt conflicted watching him, and while many viewers hated that confliction, it was at least a real emotion. I feel nothing watching Max, and while Matt Damon is just as good in the part as you would expect, I simply do not care about anything involving this character, and that saps the dramatic tension Blomkamp is legitimately good at building.
For among the many positive traits Elysium does play host to, pace is definitely one of them. Blomkamp is an expert at building and structuring a film for, at minimum, visceral investment, and despite its many narrative limitations, I do think the film is consistently engaging. Just look at how expertly Blomkamp employs Sharlto Copley’s character, a physical antagonist assigned by Foster’s character to hunt Max down. Like everyone else in the movie, the character is much too thin – evil for the sake of being evil, in this case – but Copley has a wonderful, utterly unique manic energy about him, and Blomkamp knows exactly when to mix things up by sending him into the field. When Copley is on-screen, his specific energy contrasting with Damon’s and altering the very nature of the action, the film mostly comes to life, without allowing Copley to completely overrun and overshadow the proceedings.
Most importantly, Elysium is, as an exercise in filmmaking craft, second to none for 2013 to date. Blomkamp can stretch a budget better, perhaps, than any filmmaker working today, and working with a relatively limited $90 million, he has made a true aesthetic marvel that rivals anything else released this summer. The production design is impeccable, derivative of inspirations ranging from 2001 to Blade Runner to Mass Effect, but thoroughly thought-through, functional, and visually intoxicating at all times. The special effects are absolutely seamless, tactile and weathered and lived-in, and the costumes and cinematography fall completely in line. Every single piece of this production is utterly top-notch, including a fantastic musical score by Ryan Amon that propels the film along even during the most narratively problematic stretches. The action and set-pieces are excellent as well, even if they all feel heavily modeled after first- and third-person shooter video games (to the point where I inadvertently wanted to pick up a controller on several different occasions). I do not wish to negate any of these accomplishments. Blomkamp directs the hell out of this movie, and it looks every inch like a product of his own unique, singular filmmaking voice. That he has nailed down an aesthetic identity this immense this fast is astounding.
But the challenge, I think, is whether or not Blomkamp can develop an accompanying thematic and narrative identity that goes beyond what he did in District 9. Does he have more in him than simply telling a large-scale chase story with various social inequality issues at the center? Or is Elysium a disappointing indication of a future where he keeps producing Mad Libs versions of District 9, employing the same basic skeleton but swapping out different nouns and verbs, diluting the finished product more and more along the way? I want to believe the former – that Blomkamp can direct his truly formidable talent towards richer and more imaginative, nuanced storytelling, tackling the issues that compel him from new and unexpected directions. I think his next film will be a major test, because like many fresh, developing voices, he is either going to evolve or stagnate. If evolution occurs, I would be overjoyed. But if the stasis-state that is Elysium continues, I am sad to report I might have very little interest with future works.
Elysium is entirely too heavy-handed and insubstantial to leave an impact. The effort may be extremely noble and respectable, but the finished product falls severely short