Remember District 9? Yes? Well, if not, here’s a quick rundown: released in 2009, that movie rose from the ashes of a dead Halo film project. Made by South African-Canadian Neill Blomkamp, the movie was a sci-fi action movie, but also made waves on the internet for its clear allegory to apartheid in South Africa. District 9 was fast-paced, action packed, and unabashedly political. Some people hated it, like Rooster Illusion writer himself, James Melville, others were fairly unimpressed, like Strange Bacon writer Colin French, and others were enamored, like younger me, although my opinion has evened out.
The bad news for people that fall into those first two categories is that they’ll probably feel exactly the same about Elysium, Blomkamp’s newest directorial effort. This movie is politically driven, action-oriented, and as subtle as a 115 million dollar sci-fi action epic about class politics.
Before I get into the political stuff, though, I feel like Blomkamp’s merits as a director deserve to be noted. First off, the dude can construct a science fiction world like it’s no one’s business. Seriously, while the Earth of Elysium is reminiscent of the South Africa of District 9, the entire universe is so thoroughly constructed that I forgot it doesn’t actually exist. The everyday of people’s lives; the contrast between citizens of Earth and Elysium, which is where the wealthy folks live; and every facet of these societies is fleshed out and well-incorporated into the action. Blomkamp particularly has a mind for weapon design, and the invented technologies are fascinating.
I also think that he can tell a fast-paced story with plenty of action sequences and integrate them well with the social commentary. I’m not saying that the commentary is at all subtle, but I do think that he mixes it with the actual story well so that it’s not half plot and half preach. In regard to the action itself, I’m not a huge fan of the quick-cut style, but unlike more obnoxious movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (easy target, I know), I actually could tell what the hell was going on. So that’s nice.
In general, I would say that Blomkamp is a solid director. He works well with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who also did the photography for District 9, to create a gritty, fully-realized, and well-captured Los Angeles that has been destroyed by over-population, disease, and poverty. He can write some clever dialogue, and he paces the action enough to keep the story going. Admittedly, he succumbs to cliches at times–including the notably unpalatable trope of MINOR SPOILER the hero saving a woman just as the bad guy is about to rape her. The way that it’s used as a cheap plot device doesn’t sit well with me. END SPOILER
But about those politics…you know, I really do get why people dislike District 9, and I’ll understand why even more dislike Elysium. The position that the movie takes is clearly meant to reflect modern society, almost in the way that hyperbole reflects reality to an extent. Or maybe caricature is a more apt term? The characterizations admittedly take a hit, mostly in regard to the villains. Jodie Foster, as much as I love her, plays a pure-evil villain, as does Sharlto Copley. It’s not that they aren’t acting well, although I definitely was not a fan of Foster’s attempted accent, but their motivations are almost too simplistic. But hey, this is a caricature, right? Blomkamp is taking a strong stance, and so he saves most of the nuance for his good guys.
So who are the good guys in Elysium? Well, Blomkamp clearly takes the side that the elite classes purposefully ignore and subjugate the lower classes, forcing ordinary people to live difficult lives–sometimes turning to crime–and then punishing them for doing whatever they can to survive in that society. It’s also worth noting that the population in Elysium consists of a lot more white people than Earth. I don’t think Blomkamp is saying that the Elysians are bad, but that they are part of a system that leaves others in the dust, and then constructs a police state/bureaucratic nightmare for those that are born in less fortunate circumstances in order to maintain a glossy status quo. Of course, the system creators, like Foster, are definitely bad. I won’t make an argument for or against this stance, as economics, race, and sociology are full of various perspectives. But Blomkamp takes his side and sticks to it.
I think that, regardless of whether he’s correct or not, Blomkamp constructs a world that does share similarities to our own and will force the audience to consider the politics of the movie. And you know what? All the more power to him. There is an overabundance of action blockbusters, and the fact that Blomkamp makes one that requires you to think, whether you agree or disagree with his viewpoint, is something that I respect. Is he heavy-handed? Yes. Does he lack nuance? Oh yeah. But his viewpoint sparks a lot of passion–if you don’t believe me, then ask five strangers on the street how they feel about welfare and affirmative action and I guarantee you’ll get some spirited responses–and so he makes his point passionately.
Blomkamp doesn’t want to whisper his opinion and hope we get it. He wants to shout what he thinks about class in society as two guys in exoskeletons fistfight on an artificial planet with a ravaged Earth in the background. Is that what I prefer in movies with something to say? No. But Blomkamp is attempting to make movies that appeal to the masses and take a controversial stance. I respect that. He’s not trying to manipulate us, which was my qualm with Zero Dark Thirty (and moreover not making a nationalistic piece about real people; I can deal with one-sided fictions much more than I can one-sided true stories, as much as I dislike both.) Moreover, the ability to blend a well-realized world, fast-paced plot, and critique of society at large–even if all these aspects are dialed up to eleven–is a skill. It might not be your cup of tea, but it’s an impressive cup no less.
District 9 came out and had something to say, and so does Elysium. Maybe the rhetoric is more aggressive than I like, but I’m glad I listened. If you’re not interested in what Blomkamp is trying to do, or you just straight-up hate his style, then that’s fair. I’d probably agree with every criticism you have. But I’m glad he’s making movies, and I think that he’s doing something that stands out from the standard action fare that we’ve been getting lately. Elysium is pure Blomkamp, for better or worse, and it’s up to you whether you want to listen or not.
Also, Sharlto Copley is the bee’s knees.