It’s been a sad summer for cinema. Several major Hollywood films have slumped at the box office like The Lone Ranger, After Earth and White House Down while those that have taken the cash have been tired superhero movies like Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel. A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes shows a higher-than-usual yield of rotten films on wide release, all of them sequels, including The Smurfs 2, Kick Ass 2 and Grown Ups 2, which are all receiving a critical mauling. Audiences are crying out for something new, so can District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp save the summer that sucked?
In the late 20th Century, the wealthy have abandoned Earth, now rife with poverty and disease, to live on a luxurious space station called Elysium. When Max (Matt Damon) is involved in an industrial accident he is left with five days to live, unless he can make it to Elysium to access life saving treatment. The government of Elysium has banned all immigration, however, with its borders rigorously protected by Defence Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster).
With its message about inequality, this seems like yet another film designed to anger Fox News, like Avatar, White House Down and…er…The Muppets, which can only be a good thing. Blomkamp downplays both the relevance of the social message in his films and the potential of cinema for social change, but the relevance of Elysium to our world is unavoidable whether it was meant to be or not.
The inequality on display here is almost identical to the world we live in now, with the Earth-dwelling people looking up at the luxury of Elysium in orbit, like the poor seeing Beverly Hills through their TV screens. The comparison is obvious, so let’s get it out of the way: Elysium isn’t as good as District 9. The latter was refreshing and brilliant for many reasons, not least the originality of its story and the innovative documentary style it employed to bring it to life.
Elysium lacks this, opting for a more straightforward action film, shot in a fairly conventional way. This isn’t to say it’s not visually impressive, however. Gritty, grimy Earth, shot on location on a Mexican rubbish dump, is certainly convincing, and feels like the same universe as District 9 with a very similar visual style. Elysium itself is also beautifully rendered, particularly the robot drones used by the rich, who move in an incredibly realistic way.
Where it falls down is the weakness of its central character, Max, who is frankly a bit boring. He feels like a hundred other action movie tough guys, with a bald headed Matt Damon looking like a baby with a grudge. Compared to the brilliantly original Wikus (Sharlto Copley) of District 9, Max feels like a step back. Copley is on form in Elysium as a tough but quirky gun-for-hire, bringing his unique brand of oddity to the role, but the film is sorely missing the levity of Wikus.
The future setting is brilliantly thought through and feels like a possible extrapolation of the world today, rather than an abstract universe constructed to explore a single concept. It’s spectacular, but much of the action falls into the trap of moving so fast that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. When this happens it’s easier just to switch off until the consequences of the altercation become clear, which is a shame because the future imagined has a lot of potential for exciting fights.
While this may not be as good as District 9, it still feels like an interesting, exciting science fiction film from a director who knows how to put his vision on screen. After District 9, Blomkamp was a seen as a director to watch. With this solid follow up, he looks set to go from strength to strength.