Neill Blomkamp made his mark on genre cinema in 2009 with the Academy Award-nominated (for Best Picture no less) District 9. That film perfectly fused allegory with a grand modernist vision, those most essential of elements for quality science-fiction, and we were left with something of a modern classic of the genre which still holds up today. Elysium sees the South African filmmaker given a grander canvas upon which to impart his vision, with a Hollywood star in tow and the budget to match. While the film falters in a couple of areas, one cannot deny the staggering achievement in design that Elysium is, with Blomkamp’s skills as a builder of worlds second to none. In his vision of a Los Angeles torn apart by overpopulation, the director portrays a hyper-real take on today.
Transformed in to a mass shanty town policed by robots, Blomkamp’s L.A. of 2154 makes for an easily imaginable post-script to the world of today, in which the 1% are safeguarded from the concerns of the masses. The wealthy live separately from the poor, on the titular space station, which seeks to present a vision of normality that verges on the Stepford. Daring runs to Elysium are made by refugees from Earth seeking the medical advancements practised on the station, and are clearly riffing upon the complex refuge policy of the Land Of The Free that has in many way defined the ages of the island the USA.
The bad day suffered by Sharlto Copley’s District 9 protagonist Wikus van de Merwe almost looks bearable compared to the one that Blomkamp’s new lead, bona-fide contemporary Hollywood icon Matt Damon goes through in the opening beats of Elysium. A former criminal now on the straight and narrow, Damon’s Max has all manner of frustrations thrown his way, from dealings with the local law enforcement (a team of robots, the very same of which he makes a living from building) through to an unsympathetic boss, at whose behest Max’s ultimate fate is bestowed upon him. Said interaction sees Max fitted with an exoskeleton that heightens certain abilities, making him the perfect candidate for a mission to outer space. This forced adaptation of the body makes for an elegant counterpoint to that most common of current blockbuster traits; the superpower. Unlike the refined nature of most superheroes, Max is an unwieldy freak.
The resulting figure evokes Frankenstein in nature. Man and machine are merged to the extent that a squeak of the archaic exoskeleton that holds him together is as familiar as breathing. Similarly Blomkamp flirts with the kind of visceral imagery one might associate with David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven. Body horror runs through a number of sequences, and is obviously a clear connective to the Frankenstein-ian notions mentioned afore, while narratively the film’s great influence is perhaps that key filmmaker of sci-fi action crossovers of the 1970s and 80s John Carpenter. Blomkamp inverts Carpenter’s Escape From New York neatly.
Blomkamp’s wider scope means that he’s overseeing with a bigger field of players. While the likes of Jodie Foster and Diego Luna impress as well as could be expected in their largely anonymous or cliched roles, it’s the director’s District 9 muse, Sharlto Copley who truly shines. A sleeper agent whose weapons of choice are bare knives and one liners, Copley’s Kruger is a memorable addition to the ranks of the archetypical science fiction film antagonist that resonate well with audiences (see also; Kurtwood Smith, Michael Ironside). He all but completely overwhelms Matt Damon’s lead, who is solid but a bit of a non-entity by pictures end, which is kind of apt, given how external sources often type the robotic as just that. An at times hokey and far too explicit messiah subtext is all too prevalent, and a negative symptom of Blomkamp’s keenness to treat his dystopian world’s as canvasses for projected contemporary messages. Damon’s Max is a Jesus who doesn’t want to die, even though it would mean saving countless others and his sacrifice the selfless act that can inevitably be charted within moments of the initial line of enquiry being paved down. It’s easy to see where the film is going on a personal level, which is a shame because the grander picture, of a civilisation and a collective humanity is so fascinating that it deserves, nay demands a more thoroughly absorbing anchor text.