Straddling a tense line between entertainment and bland moralizing, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp has taken a huge step backwards with his newest film Elysium. I had high hopes for this one, believe me. The trailers looked visually original with an interesting if unambitious setup. Blomkamp’s first film about alien visitors failing to find a home on Earth was surprisingly original, fun, and even rather intelligent. Blomkamp’s second film about the so-called 99%’s ressentiment against the very rich is an even more cartoonish take on the subject than The Dark Knight Rises.
The setup for this story is sort of a hodge-podge of earlier futuristic dystopias. Our planet in 2154 is overpopulated (never mind the very real impending population implosion), and the very rich have absconded to a paradisaical satellite named Elysium (complete with artificial gravity, never mind that the damn circular thing doesn’t spin), which apparently acts as its own sovereign nation (whose ruling cabinet can be deposed with a simple computer reboot, to hell with democracy), and which also jealously defends its territory against aggressive immigrants (never mind that an on-board missile defense system would make more sense than hiring one “rouge” agent with a really good gun to shoot them down from Earth), who slip in by simply flying into the open atmosphere of the satellite (apparently the rich are too cheap to build a roof, and who’s worried about cosmic rays?), and who only want to use Elysium’s magical healing machines for their ailments (all machines conveniently placed in the living or dining room of every Elysian home!). The sci-fi trappings of the film are so utterly absurd and poorly considered that I couldn’t stop laughing at the screen.
Not only that, but Blomkamp apparently has no sense of time and space. At one point a group of hunters is flying a hovercraft around L.A. airspace on the hunt for Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), and have sent out half a dozen video-equipped drones throughout the city to help locate him. His face shows up on one of their drone monitors, and the leader tells them to turn the craft around to get him. No less than five seconds later they fly up to Max, him still holding the drone in his hands. Unless the hovercraft had a teleportation device we didn’t know about, it should have taken them much longer to arrive at their destination. Little problems like this, and worse, show up repeatedly in the film. One that really bugged me was that Elysium always seems to be easily visible from the Earth’s surface at all times, regardless of a person’s location, the local pollution level, or the distance between Elysium and Earth.
The dialogue spitting out of the characters’ mouths is just as inane as the rest of the film’s problems would suggest. There’s a lot of unearned sentimentalism surrounding Max and his childhood love Frey (Alice Braga). Jodie Foster plays Jessica Delacourt, a government minister in charge of the sort of military operations which make Elysium’s president queasy, but she speaks only cliched dialogue which tells us nothing of her inner life, and she plays it with an odd accent that seems entirely unlike the accents of her fellow aristocrats. Even America’s favorite bad guy actor William Fichtner has lines that could have been written by a teenager (“I need to be busy not talking to you now”). Matt Damon is playing his usual Bland Action Man role, so there’s not much going on there. The only actor who’s even not boring is Sharlto Copley, who played the “racist with a heart of gold” Wikus in District 9, and who here plays a South American mercenary named Kruger. I never thought I’d watch a big-budget science fiction film that had worse writing than Avatar.
[IMPENDING SPOILERS, if you still care.] Unsurprisingly, the film rumbles full speed into the train wreck of its inevitable ending where the magical healthcare machines on Elysium are distributed to all the poor and ailing people of Earth. Sure, I realize that Elysium has more of these machines than it knows what to do with (remember the part about a machine sitting in every living room), but I don’t think that very many of the sick people of Earth will be able to be healed before the machines start breaking down, and then who can still afford to fix them? I get that Blomkamp was going for a sort of anti-Atlas Shrugged story here, but his ideas are even sillier and less realistic than Ayn Rand’s.
The director recently stated in an interview that “I just want to be an artist that’s just left alone.” Well, if he doesn’t clean up his act quickly, Hollywood might leave him alone indefinitely. Elysium had almost four times the budget of District 9, and only a small fraction of the imagination. This is less a sophomore slump than a sophomore suicide attempt. His third film Chappie is set to release next year, so I guess we’ll see if he can recuperate. I’m not holding my breath.