No Concessions: Elysium and Neill Blomkamp’s Missed Opportunity

August 09, 2013

District 9 fans beware: Elysium will disappoint you. First, a brief recap: The year is 2154 and humanity has been split into the haves, who live in a gated space community ham-handedly christened Elysium, and the have-nots, who make due in the dry, dirty, and crime-ridden shanty towns on earth. Max (nimbly played by Matt Damon), is one of earth’s countless grunts, toiling away like a slave in the favelas of Los Angeles. Critically injured from a debilitating accident, Max is more desperate than ever to make his way to Elysium, where residents are privy to the miracles of modern science—including access to machines that seemingly cure any and all ailments. Max’s journey to Elysium, the arc of the film, invariably alters the trajectory of mankind.

Stylistically, Elsysium is an extension of director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature film, 2009's District 9. Just like Sharlto Copley’s Wikus Van de Merwe, Damon’s Max is a hapless protagonist, a witless cog who falls out of the machine and jams it to hell. The films share a strong visual DNA: the Los Angeles of 2154 is just as gritty, hard, and brutal as the internment camps of District 9 and thematically, both films ripple with moral indignation: Where District 9 was a not-so-veiled allegory for South Africa’s apartheid past, Elysium tackles a more sprawling agenda of wealth discrepancy, corporatization, immigration, health care, and environmental degradation. It seems Blomkamp's finally caught the Occupy bug.

“I want to blow things up as much as I want to make films that are about serious topics,” said Blomkamp in the film’s production notes. How well you think Blomkamp balances social commentary—and it is exceedingly hard to ignore here—with “blowing things up” will be a measure of how much you like this film. With District 9, the director struck a rare chord: a blockbuster with an indie vibe (or was it the other way around?) that offered a healthy helping of substance and a protagonist to care about. That was a smart and quick-footed action adventure; with Elysium, Blomkamp took what could've been a great story, slathered it with a coat of cause du jour, and sent it down a predictable path.

The biggest problem with Elysium comes toward the second half of the film. By the time Blomkamp finally turns his attention to the space station hanging like a glazed donut in the sky, the film has largely devolved into a run-of-the-mill bang 'em up, leaning on caricatures and clichés to move the plot forward. Elysium’s leader, the platinum-haired, blue-eyed Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is a heartless autocrat; the archetypical villain who gets her kicks by blowing illegal immigrants out of the sky. Her henchman Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) is a demented sadist. Meanwhile, Max is an unassuming martyr, a man who’s better than he thought he was. Unfortunately, between the crash landings, gunplay, and exoskeleton sword fights, we glean precious little about the floating Bel-Air the film is named after. In the mad rush to move the film along, so many questions go unanswered: How does Elysium protect its technology from the masses? Who gave Secretary Delacourt that awful haircut and why? Do Elysium citizens play Candy Crush? Blomkamp sketches an interesting outline, but he never goes back to fill in the details.

“The most important thing to me is that the movie is entertaining, but I like to put a worthwhile story underneath, so it isn’t just pure popcorn,” says Blomkamp.

Entertaining? Sure—Matt Damon and Copley are well cast, and Blomkamp has a knack for special effects that are jaw-droppingly good without being tacky. But a worthwhile story? Less so. That’s not to say that Elysium isn’t a significant notch above the thoughtless blockbusters we've been presented with these last few months. It’s just that District 9 fans, including this one, were expecting a little more from Blomkamp. Then again, in a summer littered with cinematic duds, beggars can’t be choosy.

Elysium opens in theaters across the country today.

No Concessions: Elysium and Neill Blomkamp’s Missed Opportunity