The Rich, the Poor, and Neill Blomkamp
In the realms of contemporary sci-fi, director Neill Blomkamp has become something of a visionary. His films, District 9 and now Elysium, fashion the genre’s typical razzmatazz with layers of rust and decay, crafting future worlds where technology isn’t the commanding characteristic of civilization but rather simply another aspect of life’s daily grind. Poverty is rampant, and the machines have a shoddy industrial quality that’s a far cry from the sterile design favored by many sci-fi blockbusters (from the first half of the year alone, Star Trek, Iron Man 3, and Oblivion fit the bill). It’s the sort of dystopian aesthetic that give classics like Blade Runner and Children of Men such visceral oomph. These movies offer escapism by way of real-world vitality, seducing viewers with textures and environments that are simultaneously imaginative and thrillingly believable.
Elysium takes it one step further by including both kinds of sci-fi – the sleek & shiny and the down & dirty – within the same film. The former is the subject of the film’s title, an advanced space station housing earth’s wealthiest residents after they fled the planet to escape civilization’s decay; the latter is what’s left of that civilization in the year 2154. Elysium is an oasis of green grass, ornate mansions, and photogenic families with Crest-worthy smiles and an attitude of blissful ignorance. Earth, on the other hand, is an overpopulated scourge of slum neighborhoods, disease, and street-level crime; a place where Los Angeles native Max Da Costa (played by an angry and formidable Matt Damon) is arbitrarily sentenced to die after accidentally exposing himself to lethal doses of radiation at the factory where he works. The only cure? A panacean medical pod exclusive to Elysium, whose brutal security system guns down every illegal immigrant that tries to breach its borders. In order to survive, Max will attempt the near-impossible task of stealing into the space station, perhaps saving earth’s inhabitants in the process.
On an aesthetic level, this deliberate juxtaposition of two vastly different sci-fi worlds functions as a sort of meta-style, highlighting the characteristics of both through contrast. Elysium feels that much more pristine next to earth’s dilapidated conditions, and vice versa. Furthermore, because the movie adopts a critical perspective of the socioeconomic upper class from the get-go, our sympathies bend toward the earthbound communities and away from the Elysian way of life, which seems austere and elitist in comparison. In this manner, the film works as a robust, though perhaps unintentional, endorsement of Blomkamp’s style as one that deviates from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood product, which Elysium ably captures. It’s a style whose gritty vérité design suggests a degree of compassion and filmmaking freedom that has been lacking from the annals of contemporary pop cinema. District 9 introduced it to the world. Elysium ensures we don’t forget it.
As for its status as social commentary, Elysium falls sadly short of its predecessor. District 9 successfully converts a genre trope into a powerful metaphor for Apartheid because it’s specific in its intentions. Rather than addressing society-wide issues, it tells a story, and lets the implications of the historical tragedy speak for itself. Elysium, on the other hand, doesn’t resemble anything in particular. It’s a hodgepodge of oversimplified concepts and wishful solutions that paints issues of wealth and class in broad, almost parodic strokes (Elysium is literally located above earth, and the aesthetic contrast between the two turns absurd when seen in a political light), which would have been fine if the movie weren’t dead serious. As the film progresses, its tenuous social message falls apart, revealing Elysium to be little more than an action movie bloated with a false sense of self-importance.
For Elysium, however, being an action movie is no small feat. Blomkamp proved himself a dazzling action auteur with District 9, and here, he continues his legacy with a series of explosive set pieces. In keeping with the film’s run-down design, they are messy, bloody, and fascinated with the engineering prowess of the weapons. On the last point, we have bullets doubling as seismic charges, deadly railguns, and flying discs that latch themselves to targets’ bodies with gory results. Nothing’s clean here. It’s all nuts, bolts, and whirring parts, observed with a workman’s eye for the ways in which man and machine can collide to spectacular effect. Shot with the coveted shaky cam, these scenes are sometimes near-unintelligible, but more often than not, they have a thudding immediacy that shames most other slam-bang entertainments on the market. Though it overstays its welcome by the end of the film’s clumsy final act, Elysium-as-action-movie is easily the film’s strongest persona, and reason enough to catch the movie while it’s still playing on the big screen.
The key to understanding Elysium’s hit-and-miss quality, to why the action scenes roar but the politics whimper, goes back to the stylistic conceit that launched Blomkamp’s career in the first place. What we loved about District 9 is how it sits at the junction between fantasy and reality, the way it so completely unifies vibrant creativity with real-life consequences. The action in Elysium stays true to this spirit. Breathless visual wizardry abounds, but it never shies away from the kinetic, gut-level impact of violence and death. The movie’s sociopolitical element, however, loses touch with what the world is really like. It comes across as naïve and, compared with the rest of the film, sloppily conceived. And yet even then, there’s no denying Blomkamp’s ambitious streak. That he chose to include a serious social subtext into a summer blockbuster at all is a mark of distinction, one enhanced by Elysium‘s vivid, albeit flawed, construction. It’s the kind of distinction that a director needs to rocket from earth into the Elysian reaches of cinematic space.