Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was a near perfect allegory; science fiction at its most socially intelligent. It brought to mind the conscientious, inquisitive genre movies of the ‘70’s whose precursors were literary: H.G Wells by way of Huxley, Orwell and Wyndham. Elysium courts the same relevance but must settle for being a poor relation. In the gutter, looking up at the stars, it can see District 9’s focus and narrative complications glistening in the storytelling firmament. How Blomkamp must have wished he could get up there and help himself but it’s a cruel world: writing your own screenplay’s hard, back breaking work.
That isn’t to say that this movie fails to get its message across. With the future poor consigned to a global ghetto and the lucky 1% healthy and wealthy in orbit, one could hardly fail to feel righteous indignation coupled with Westerner’s guilt. There’s no escaping the real world tie-ins: sick children, poor sanitation, pauper’s healthcare and dangerous working conditions. We’re floored to discover that segregation and self-interest are natural bedfellows. This is simple but serious stuff.
Social comment uploaded we’re primed for the story, only to be find it less assured. The plot points are well defined but the execution’s clunky. An auspicious premise gives way to a film that rushes its best scenes and divests itself of emotional realism with some curiously mannered performances. It’s a directorial oddity in which moments designed to create tension or urgency are rendered flat, while others are overplayed. There’s some of the best worst action ever shot: meticulous, beautifully designed yet spasmodic and unwatchable. Is Blomkamp a pseudonym for two people or do we have a real world Jekyll and Hyde on our hands?
A low budget meant no stars, just actors for District 9. Sharlto Copley was left to carry the picture, which he did with some aplomb. Ironic then, that wallet flush with cash and A list secured, Copley’s the best thing in Elysium. His snarling fixer, the Darth Maul of the piece (though better used than Lucas’ bad guy) fills the screen. He’s unpleasant and pumped; a turn memorable for more than his impenetrable South African accent. In contrast Blomkamp’s stars, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, are mono-dimensional and lifeless. The former can’t transcend the plot’s requirements while the latter is bafflingly stilted with inflections so unnatural that one suspects her performance was recorded backwards and the film reversed. These deficiencies really hurt the movie; it plays without feeling.
What saves Elysium is some excellent production design and impressive visual effects. This is a lived-in world where the Earth bound tech is well worn and dirty; the real locations add grit. The eponymous paradise is a vivid contrast – green, clean and sterile. It’s every new development you walk past writ large. These environments and some eye opening digital artistry make for a grand spectacle. Unfortunately the film’s shortcomings are as familiar as the wealth gap. It’s a lack of purchase on story and characterisation; a problem that guarantees even a film with the loftiest ambitions will come crashing down to Earth.