On Radio 3 today I discussed Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, the third feature from the promising South African science fiction director, who shot to fame with his startling, Oscar-nominated debut District 9. I also say a few words about Bennett Miller’s rather excellent Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.
South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp teams up with Matt Damon for another slice of grungy, politcally charged science fiction, to follow up his impressive debut, District 9. The results, however, are less successful second time out.
Neill Blomkamp made an incredible entrance in 2009 with District 9 – a bold new voice in science fiction that used the allegory of a lingering alien invasion to discuss the subject of racism and apartheid in his native South Africa. His follow-up feature is actually a fairly similar venture, with Matt Damon playing a blue collar worker who is accidentally exposed to fatal radiation levels at work and determines to journey skywards to the utopian space station of the title, where the 1% have medical facilities in every home that can cure him.
On repeat viewing, the allegory in District 9 is broad, simple and far from subtle. The film works because of the journey of its eccentric, unlikable anti-hero (Copley’s breakthrough role) and the documentary, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic. In Elysium, all of these tricks are repeated (bar the docu-viewpoint), right down to evolving your protagonist into a cyborg before unleashing them into the unknown. Elysium takes on the current financial state of the world – and the US in particular – as its target, with the elite now living Off-World, while the have-nots reel in a polluted scrapyard Earth, eking out whatever kind of living they can in order to survive.
Matt Damon is obviously a far more established star than Copley, but his character is far more clear-cut and redeemable. A troubled young man from the wrong side of the tracks, Max (Damon) helps kids, hits on pretty nurses, gets sarcastic with his parole officer and is ultimately screwed over by “The Man” and left for dead. His motivations to illegally attempt to reach Elysium are entirely justified and sympathetic, but Blomkamp needs to inject some grunge-tech into the situation, so has Max fused to a military grade eco-skeleton to make him more tragically badass.
Blomkamp clearly understands how to direct action and throughout the film, Elysium feels like an epic sci-fi adventure and looks as epic as its premise deserves. The two worlds – the rust bucket dust bowl of Earth juxtaposed against the lush lawns and fountains of Elysium, governed by a judicious, educated and strangely European Jodie Foster – is beautifully realised, but behind the stylish veneer, the film’s universe is thin, inconsistent and riddled with plotholes and flawed logic.
Sharlto Copley is gifted a delightfully evil role as Foster’s mercenary vigilante sent to take Max out before he can make it into orbit. Foster pretty much reprises her role from Spike Lee’s Inside Man, while Matt Damon delivers his regular Bourne-esque vulnerable hero with reliable aplomb.
Elysium is fine, but in the wake of District 9 and the blanket praise that film received, it will inevitably be regarded as a disappointment. The script feels half baked and under-thought, the technological innovations are inconsistent and frequently contradictory, while too many ideas are introduced only to be ignored or forgotten about. As a result, dedicated sci-fi fans will be left wanted, desperate for a richer, more developed experience that delivers more than Elysium, which does little more than look like an intelligent thriller.