District 9 exploded onto our screens to commercial success and critical acclaim in 2009. The racism allegory and genuinely original storyline captured the minds of cinema-goers bored to cynical tears by too many formulaic Hollywood blockbusters. Now director Neill Blomkamp is back, his new sci-fi film tackling the wealth gap.
Elysium depicts a literal and vast gap between the rich and poor; the uber-wealthy orbit above the Earth in Elysium, a cartwheel-shaped paradise in space complete with beautiful homes, clean air and perfect medicine. The rest of humanity lives back on Earth, in cramped mega-cities whose infrastructure is collapsing from over-population.
Matt Damon is Max, a former car thief trying to go straight with a factory job and win the heart of his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga). When he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work, he soon realises that only the perfect healthcare of Elysium can save his life.
Meanwhile on Elysium itself, defence secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is under criticism for shooting down a shuttle attempting to land illegally on the station and for employing the ruthless mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Soon Max is caught up in Delacourt’s plot to stage of coup on Elysium and the plans of Spider (Wagner Moura), a gang leader intent on overthrowing Elysium. The plot starts out strong and manages to weave its many threads together well. It quickly establishes the setting and characters, grounding them in the audience’s mind. However this expert story-telling does not last long; about halfway through the film, we are back to standard action movie fair with Max fighting Kruger, who has kidnapped Frey.
The characters are not nuanced but this is a film that benefits from iconic characters. Max is an acceptable everyman trying to make his way in an unfair world and Damon plays the part well, as we’ve come to expect from him. Foster is clearly having fun, camping it up slightly as the heartless Delacourt. Copley puts in a good turn as the disgusting South African hired killer, and Braga also does her best with a severely under-developed character. The stand out performer is Moura, who takes Spider from terrifying gangster to loveable freedom fighter.
Where Elysium really comes to life is in its visual representation of the wealth gap. Life on Earth is dirty, but illustrates wonderfully the resilience of human nature when faced with adversity. Housing consists of shacks built on the sides of damaged skyscrapers, and every device is cobbled together form several broken ones. Spider’s makeshift HQ is high-tech but clearly salvaged from scrap, displaying his understanding of machinery. His only option on poverty-ridden Earth is to learn how to make and fix things. We see this in the most deprived areas on Earth today and it shown brilliantly in this film. The contrast between Earth and Elysium is stark; the space station is presented as a late 1980s vision of the future, all geometric shapes and blocky single colour graphics. It would have been easy to give Elysium an Apple-like aesthetic, complete with motion control and touch screens, but this representation would have dated quickly. The visual subtext is clear; Elysium’s wealth has isolated its inhabitants from understanding their complex technology, whereas scarcity has forced the people of Earth to be clever.
Where Elysium does well, it excels. Where it does poorly, it becomes a generic Hollywood sci-fi, action blockbuster. The visuals are detailed and clever, whereas the characters are largely transparent. The plot starts outs strong before petering out, but is well supported by the principal players. As a successor to District 9 it has too much Hollywood blockbuster and not enough original ideas. The metaphor is strong, but not developed in enough detail to really resonate with the audience. Fans of District 9 will be entertained but this is clearly the weaker of the two films.