2009 saw the release of District 9, directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp. Filmed on a conservative budget of $30 million (small when compared to blockbuster action films that year) utilizing an original story set in South Africa and starring all unknown actors, everything was stacked against the film. Yet District 9 become one of the surprise hits of the year, eventually earning a Best Picture nomination. Blomkamp’s ability to balance social commentary with heartfelt drama was demonstrated, as well as perfectly crafting some of the best action scenes of the year. For his sophomore effort, all eyes were on Blomkamp, awaiting to see if he could catch lightning in a bottle once more. Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice, leaving Elysium a feeling like an uglier clone of it’s original counterpart.
Elysium finds Blomkamp once again incorporating social commentary into his stories, although this time with a more heavy hand. It’s the year 2154 and society has been divided between the rich and the poor. The rich live on Elysium, a rotating space station reminiscent of the station from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the poor are left to struggle on a desolate earth. It seems that Blomkamp isn’t particularly fond of those with lots of money; understandable when we live in a world where monetary equality is growing more and more disproportionate. However, it seems that the only crime Elisians are guilty of is being rich, which leaves a rather weak motivation for the protagonists of the film. To embody the rich, Blomkamp gives us Jessica Delacourt (whose name, I suppose, is meant to sound as pretentious as her status), a power-hungry government minister who also happens to oversee security on Elysium. I assume everyone on Elysium is some sort of embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge, but then again the whole population is only represented in two paper-thin caricatures (one of which is hardly in the movie). But that’s okay because we’re meant to root for Max (Matt Damon) whose ‘sympathetic’ backstory is told from the onset of the film. In fact, it’s Max’s past that is one of the weaker parts of the film. Utilizing slo-motion and blown out shots, these scenes feel forced, reeking of over-sentimentality. It’s interesting that Elysium fails on this level, since the film is essentially a re-hash of District 9. Yes, the finer details are different, but it’s same beast overall. For all these moments that worked for District 9, they fall flat in Elysium, making it hard to connect with any of the characters.
The one saving grace for Elysium, however, is Neil Blomkamp’s ability to direct action. Elysium starts off slow, but once the film picks up in the 2nd act, Blomkamp keeps the pedal to the metal, relentlessy building the tension. Lending to the success is the world Blomkamp has created. Both the dusty, drab earth below and the shiny, lush world above are realistically realized (Blomkamp filmed most of the L.A. scenes from the film at a landfill in the Iztapalapa district outside of Mexico City, lending to the credibility of the film). The production design, the props, and costumes for both worlds are perfectly crafted, allowing the viewer to be drawn into the film. To bad Blomkamp has taken a page from Paul Greengrass when it came to editing. While the action scenes are well crafted, Blomkamp opts for the fast cuts that Greengrass has inspired in action films lately. It’s not always distracting, but there are a couple moments where it is hard to determine what is happening. Thankfully these moments are few.
Elysium is the most schizophrenic film I’ve seen in quite some time. For every part that doesn’t work (the characters and their motivations) there are moments that do (the action along with the worlds created). The good far outweighs the bad; it’s just a shame that Elysium couldn’t build off District9.