Neill Blomkamp’s debut film ‘District 9’ was an incisive fable on apartheid hidden inside a science fiction tale. For ‘Elysium’, his first Hollywood effort, he crafted a clever satire on social class within the same science fiction shell.
The best things about it are its world-building and cinematography. The 2154-era Los Angeles is an overpopulated and polluted mess that reminded me of the favelas of Brazil or venturing close to home, the Payatas dumpsite. It is devoid of plant life, the sunlight is harsh, everything is dry and dusty. While Elysium the space station, the new home of the planet’s richest, boasts seemingly endless manicured lawns, celebrity-sized mansions, fountains and swimming pools, almost like a living version of Legoland in its perfection.
The remaining people in Los Angeles also speak a patois of English and Spanish while those who are in Elysium speak in a clipped British accent or in French (or is it just Jodie Foster’s character who does that?). If these differences were still not obvious, the camera work further drives home the difference between these two places. The LA scenes were shot as if using a hand-held camera, which gave the scenes a kinetic, reportage/documentary feel. Meanwhile, the scenes on Elysium looked like they were shot via steadicam.
These visual wonders make for a compelling first 15 minutes of the film. My curiosity is piqued by the two characters who are in opposite sides of a social continuum. On one end is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an orphan who is trying to rebuild his life post-imprisonment, resisting all prodding to return to a life of crime. He also made a promise to a childhood sweetheart that he will take her to Elysium one day. On the other end is Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the ruthless security chief whose main task is to keep the habitat free from illegal immigrants.
The intersection of these two polar opposites was an interesting, albeit unexplored, element of the narrative. Max will exhaust all efforts, including a return to crime, to reach Elysium after suffering a lethal dose of radiation in the factory where he worked. The cure to all ills is in Elysium, after all. Delacourt, meanwhile, is so determined to keep illegal immigrants out of Elysium that she resorts to shooting the ramshackle spacecrafts that carried them before they reach Elysium instead of just apprehending and deporting them back to earth. This act catches the ire of Delacourt’s bosses, resulting in a power struggle.
Unfortunately the film opted for a third character as fulcrum for the two lead characters. Agent Kruger, menacingly played by District 9’s lead Sharlto Copley, chewed the scenery every time he is on-screen. He is an agent working for Delacourt, but his psychosis has no master other than himself. How he affects both Max and Delacourt was explored more substantially than, say, giving us an insight on how great life in Elysium really is, for instance. Or better yet, opting for a more direct interaction of the two characters. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster both imbued their characters with intelligence and gravitas quite uncommon in other films of the genre. If only they had more screen time together.
The fascinating premise and social commentary teased at by the first part of the film eventually degenerated into slam-bang Hollywood summer blockbuster territory. The ultra-violent battle of Max and Kruger could very well be in any of the summer blockbuster films shown recently. The one visual flourish to this scene was the wind-blown cherry blossoms that contrasted sharply to the clashing metals, flesh, and blood. I liked that detail.
Delacourt is soon killed by her own attack dog Kruger who is in turn vanquished by Max, who dies a heroic death after hacking the core computer system of Elysium. A big change has happened, one that benefits the underdogs. But instead of satisfaction more questions arise. Now that all earth-bound people have become citizens of Elysium, will the space station face its own problem of overpopulation due to migration? Will they be content to receive Elysium’s health services? Will the original citizens of Elysium allow this to happen?
In this aspect, the film achieves a bit of subtlety and becomes closest to reality. Because from a developmental point of view, the resolution of one social problem usually results in a new set of problems that require new solutions.
My verdict? It’s not District 9, but still a good movie. Watch it!