Quite simply the wrong district every turn it takes

In the year 2154, society is literally divided, with Earth’s one percent living on an orbiting space station known as Elysium and the rest living in dystopian slums while the booming population can no longer be contained. Housing and work are equally sparse. Ex-con and blue collar everyman Max (Damon) has chosen a life on the straight and narrow, working on factory assembly lines, building robot sentries. When he’s blasted by a deadly dose of radiation in an accident, Max has only five days to live before the sickness claims his life. However, on Elysium, they have machines that can cure anything from a bone fracture to cancer – in mere seconds. In order to gain passage to Elysium, Max must return to his former life of crime to pull off one last job: one that could tip the scales between Earth and Elysium … forever.

Neill Blomkamp exploded onto the scene in 2009 with his debut District 9 (D9). The film, a thinly veiled (if at all) sci-fi analogy for South Africa’s apartheid, was extremely well received, but left me with a bad taste in my brain. Elysium had a similar effect, but also clarified what troubled me about both films.

Just as the narrative of D9 grew out of a punchy premise that was analogous to real world issues, so Elysium serves as a commentary on the imbalance of the starving, sick millions on the African continent and the comparative wealth and opulence of their European neighbours. Which is all fair enough, but aren’t those strokes much too broad? Blomkamp seems unconcerned with the complexities and contradictions his analogy conjures forth, instead literally shoving every character and scenario into a recognisable mould. His sole purpose is to manipulate his audience into well-trodden patterns of emotional investment. This makes me not want to trust the film.

The world is set up brilliantly as a cruel environment where poverty, worn clothes and dirty faces contrast with the immaculate Elysium, making it easy to root for Damon’s likeable underdog. Blomkamp’s baddies, on the other hand, are all cartoonishly callous, with one, the owner of the droid manufacturing corporation (Fichtner), remarking that the freshly irradiated Max should be cast onto the street before he “makes a mess” in the place he’s resting. It’s too much. Similarly the bounty hunter, Kruger (presumably named by those unsure where the character fell on the good/bad movie spectrum – played by Copley, the lead from D9), is constantly shouting obscenities and making vulgar rape threats etc. It’s a clumsy performance and the kind of uncomplicated villainy that makes Dr Evil look subtly refined. He’s hired by the head of Elysium’s defence, a black-hearted Jodie Foster, in a role so one-dimensional that it is instantly forgotten as even being her.

Do such monstrous humans exist? Certainly. But putting at least three of them in the same film, without ever asking what makes any of them tick, smacks of oversight. At least in D9, the protagonist was a cowardly corporate goon who discovered his heroism. Nothing quite so interesting is on offer here. We’re asked to emotionally invest in a class struggle, set in the future yes, but one that closely reflects a reality for many people today. Then we’re slipped pantomimic characters as the narrative devolves into a shouty game of cat and mouse featuring big guns and bigger plot holes. 

The problem with D9 and Elysium is that they harness the emotions of present-day injustices with premises that promise something much more than regular fare – but more than they intend to deliver. Audiences are treated as though they’ll be too dazzled by violence and spectacle to notice the promise has been reneged on.

Elysium (15)

Dir: Neill Blomkamp; USA, sci-fi/action 2013, 109 mins; Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner
Premiered August 15
Playing nationwide