I somehow missed Elysium during its run at the cinema, and as DVD viewing it has languished a while in the wake of a generally negative response from…well, most people.
But I’ve finally gotten around to watching Neil Blomkamp’s follow up — but not sequel — to District 9. Now, I loved District 9. It opened in the cinemas opposite James Cameron’s CGI-heavy borefest Avatar, and generally got pretty short shrift at the time. And yet whereas Avatar was one of the most patronising films I’ve ever seen, District 9 was powerful, moving and deeply, deeply relevant. It was essentially a demonstration what science-fiction should be doing on film.
It was a tough act to follow, even more for a breakout director like Blomkamp, which might go some way towards explaining the disappointment Elysium was met with.
I, however, enjoyed it. And I do think that if you didn’t, you should give it another watch and try to judge it on its own relative merits.
In terms of plot, Elysium takes place in about a hundred and fifty years time. The rich live on an orbital space-station paradise, whilst everyone else lives in squalor on an extremely overpopulated Earth. Manual worker and reformed(ish) car thief Max (a bald Matt Damon) dreams of Elysium, and when he is subjected to a terminal dosage of radiation, he bolts on a power suit and tries to storm Elysium. Unfortunately, he gets himself wrapped up in the schemes of Elysium’s Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her Earth-based agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
The first thing that struck me was that this is a very different beast to District 9. Blomkamp’s first film was fast paced and had a lot of action, but it was more frenetic than in Elysium, moving in fits and bursts. Elysium actually has more of the feel of an action-SF film, not entirely unlike James Cameron’s Aliens. On speed, perhaps. The pace is dizzying, which does create a bit of a blur as far as plot events go, but for me it accurately showed Max‘s desperation as death bore down on him, the motivation to attempt the impossible.
So too the visuals. The images of ruined Earth, the sense of teeming masses, it was all conveyed as excellently as those shots in District 9 of the mothership hovering over Johannesburg. And the technology felt real — those priveleged few on Elysium had devices so slick they looked as if they rolled straight out of the Apple store, whereas those planetside were stuck with cobbled together fix-ups of previous generations.
There were problems, though. Firstly, Max’s childhood friend Frey was an underdeveloped character. She lingered in the hinterland between love interest and ancillary friend, in the end fulfilling little aside from the final climactic motivation. And the aforementioned fast pace did blur out the social commentary elements to a degree — there was no time to muse on the ideas presented, the film just rushed the audience onto the next set-piece.
Yes, it fails to reach the intellectual heights of District 9. But that’s not really its fault. It isn’t trying to be District 9, it is trying to be more of a summer blockbuster, with a little social awareness. Which is something that it achieves. Yes, it would be nice if there was a bit more contemplation and maybe a few fewer gunfights, but it ticks the boxes it set out to, and a few others. Those who marked it down based on a few loose-ends — which there are indeed — I feel are being too harsh. Sharlto Copley and Jodie Foster both gave excellent performances, and when it gets to the end Blomkamp doesn’t flinch away from his ideas or their logical finishing point, but embraces it in a triumph of self-sacrificing social revolution, capturing perfectly the zeitgeist of the 99% movement.