I loved Neil Blomkamp’s first feature, District 9. Many others did too, seeing as it made a sizable profit, got nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, and earned its director the clout to more than triple his budget for his sophomore effort Elysium. But a good number of people disliked District 9. They said it wasn’t as original as made out to be, that it wasn’t as smart as it thought it was, that it was both overbearing and underdeveloped in its allegory. Maybe there’s something to each of those points, but as far as I’m concerned, the depth of the characters and sheer excitement of the film-making overruled any of the movie’s potential flaws.
Elysium is the movie District 9‘s detractors thought they saw. Though technically one of those ever-rare in Hollywood “original screenplays”, it’s not original in any other sense, not even in the unexpected mash-up sense that District 9 was. District 9‘s apartheid allegory might not have been subtle or particularly deep, but it made complete sense within the world the movie had set up. Elysium, on the other hand, fails to set up a world that makes sense. The ruined third-world Los Angeles makes an impression, but the Elysium space station is so poorly realized on a political (what’s the whole presidential coup really changing?), social (how does the average Elysian go about their life and how do they feel about their privilege over Earthlings?), and practical (why does it seem so easy to overwrite their computer system, and if they’re so concerned with keeping away and even shooting down outside ships, WHY DON’T THEY JUST USE THE FORCE FIELD TECHNOLOGY WE KNOW EXISTS IN THIS WORLD!?!) that it robs the immigration and economic allegories of their potential power.
The biggest problem is the characters, or lack thereof. Matt Damon is OK acting-wise (he delivers the movie’s funniest lines in an argument with a robotic parole officer), but his character Max is too one-dimensional. The romance with Alice Braga’s Frey never pops, and the only piece of his background that offers something different than “generic good guy”, his criminal past, is given a couple lines of lip-service and never shown, developed, or dealt with. His best bud Julio (Diego Luna) is likeable but doesn’t get enough action; frustrating how in a movie obviously inspired by US-Mexico border issues, the Hispanic actors get the short end of the stick. If Max is boringly “good”, Jodie Foster’s defense minister Delacourt is needlessly “EEEEEEEVILLLLLLLLL!” A big deal is made of her cruelty and how she wants to overthrow the president of Elysium, but there’s no motivation for her cruelty, and given that the president was already in charge of an oppressive classist system, couldn’t he, a politician responsible for evils without being a cackling villain, made a more compelling antagonist? Sharlto Copley as the cyborg mercenary Kruger is also sadistically evil but relatively more believable threat; his action scenes approach the Schwarzenegger movie you sense Blomkamp wishes he were making as the political pretensions fall apart. Copley’s heavy South African accent can be distracting, though; it does seem to be played up heavier than it was in District 9. Copley’s role in that previous movie, the lovably stupid bad guy turned reluctantly redeemed anti-hero Wikus Van De Merwe, remains a far more interesting character than anyone in Elysium.
I’m not sure how Blomkamp ended up making such a weak follow-up to his first big hit. Maybe it was the pressures of Hollywood and a bigger budget. His visual talent keeps the movie watchable, he uses CGI better than almost anyone else, and there’s enough assorted flashes of inspiration, a bit of satirical irony here, a creative piece of gore there, that I can’t write this off as a “bad” movie. It’s a very disappointing one, however. Blomkamp’s next feature, Chappie, has him returning to the smaller budget realm, reuniting with his District 9 co-writer Terri Tatchell, and making his first comedy. Let’s hope it serves as a rebound.