In Elysium Neill Blomkamp envisions another dystopian-nightmare future, only to once again get that bit too enthusiastic with his action chops. I had an uncannily similar experience watching his new blockbuster as his breakthrough District 9: initially enthralled by his irreverent, satirical eye mapping the story’s cinematic world, and then bitterly disappointed as that world goes up in quite unwanted flames. He torches the junkyard palace before we’ve had a chance to crane our eager heads inside. Blomkamp has been a ceaselessly inventive follower of the George Lucas and Ridley Scott sci-fi models of world-building, the concept of the ‘aged future’ – that longed-for, lived-in factor where those spacecraft hulls and droids look beat-up, functional, convincingly authentic. What he hasn’t learned from his sci-fi grandmasters is making the fire-throwing spectacle sit fluently with storytelling. And this time, the world of 2154-era Earth he concocts doesn’t seem nearly as personal, detailed or lovingly engineered as his boyhood hometown of Johannesburg in District 9.
Earth in 2154 is an endless stream of shanty towns and pollutant smog; the 1% have decamped to Elysium, a wagon-wheel-shaped chrome space-station in the sky, which resembles a five-star beachside resort freeze-packed for eternity. Driving home the WALL-E parallels, Matt Damon is the Earth drone-worker Max, nursing a lost love, and destined in Matrix-like one-true-saviour fashion to bring balance to these two worlds. He has a life-threatening radiation illness from his factory work and needs access to Elysium’s health machines, which can cure ailments by scrambling cells electronically. His journey to Elysium is hijacked by a band of Earth revolutionaries involved in corporate espionage against the Elysium executives, and the plot is set in motion. Jodie Foster is the stone-faced security executive Delacourt policing Elysium’s borders; Sharlto Copley, continuing his collaboration with Blomkamp from District 9, plays Kruger, her Afrikaner mercenary soldier, whose weapons include a samurai sword, and some cringe-inducing South African nursery rhymes.
The story’s themes of class war and confrontation between the developing and developed world may seem unusually forthright for a crowd-pleasing studio tentpole. Yet, as in the storytelling strategies of much Young Adult fiction and their film adaptations, these factions of privileged and poor are still far too simplistic and sketchily imagined to say anything truly urgent politically. Blomkamp has a laudable aim, but a blander one compared to his parallels in District 9 between the prawns’ segregation and the disgraces of apartheid; he disdains the inequality and neglect of the few towards the many, but the notion of a future Earth’s proletariat striking to unseat Elysium’s bourgeoisie is too broad to reflect anything as uncomfortable as what unsettles us today. The concept does make perfect ‘sci-fi’ sense, but the impression is more of Blomkamp employing real-world details to ground a more outlandish scenario than following the classic sci-fi dictum that visions of the future are really just reflections of the hard truth of the present.
Damon, in his role as the story’s hero, offers his customary Everyman dignity, even when being verbally abused by robot policemen. But in a film with so many Verhoeven and Carpenter-like tongue-in-cheek touches, a tad more wit, or even some camp self-awareness, would not have gone amiss in this noble-hearted emancipator. Foster seems to taken such advice too far in the opposite direction, with her peculiar, Gallic-tinged British accent and sharp-shouldered posture an attempt to wrestle some personality into the most flimsily conceived character in the script. The contributions of these two prestige-oriented A-list Hollywood actors, locking horns for the fate of mankind, together encapsulate Elysium’s most dispiriting flaw: the sad locus of a project over-designed yet under-thought.
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