Elysium (2013)

A peril of blogging about film is that it can give the inadvertent impression that my opinion of a given film is fixed. My blog about District 9 (click on the last two words) is a case in point. I enjoyed much about that film the first time around, but I concluded that it didn’t have the depth it liked to think it did. I’ve re-watched it multiple times since (largely because it’s a film people like to watch when they visit us in South Africa), and my admiration has grown and deepened. I still find it exciting and fun, but I keep seeing new depth in it too. It turns out that it was I who wasn’t thinking deeply enough.

So it’s with a little apprehension that I finally settled down to watch the director (Neill Blomkamp) follow-up to that film, Elysium. Worryingly, my conclusions are similar if less positive overall; there’s much that’s good about it, but it’s ultimately disappointing. Like the former, this is a science-fiction earthed in the director’s South African reality. This time the context is the division between rich and poor; Earth has been left behind by the elite for an idyllic space-station called Elysium, always in view and out of sight by the teeming masses of poor left behind, grinding out lives of subsistence, dead-end jobs and subservience to a system loaded against them. Matt Damon gets caught up in an industrial accident on Earth; seeking healing he’s embarked on a dangerous course of action to earn illegal passage to the man-made paradise and certain healing.

There’s so much about Neill Blomkamp’s emerging style. He knows the grammar of science-fiction films well, but his is an authentically original voice and style. He directs actions scenes brilliantly in a post-Bourne world, using hand-held shaking cameras well but in a subtly different way. Every action scene is gripping and involving. As someone who lives in South Africa I like that he uses South African talent and patois alongside better known talent and language. Throwaway South African slang is brilliantly used to draw into the film’s world, not alienate. District 9‘s star is back again, similarly intense but in a key supporting role and a world away from that film’s fear-struck vulnerability.

Overall, though, it just doesn’t work. Key supporting roles (Jodie Foster’s being a case in point) are under-written to the point that we’re never quite sure what they’re for even at key plot moments; the coldness of the privileged elite seems less like the gap between rich and poor and more like lazy writing. Other than good medical care and nice gardens, Elysium itself doesn’t seem to have any actual content – which means the gap between rich and poor is never quite established beyond a need for good health care. Which might make sense (and it does) in South Africa, but just doesn’t work for the film’s central theme. By the time the climactic scenes roll around, you’re impressed and entertained, but confused as to quite what’s happening and why it all matters so much to so may people.

It’s a shame, but not a crying one. It’s still a decent film, but I’d be really surprised if I grew to feel about this film the way I do about District 9. What we do know for certain, though, is that Neill Blomkamp is a director to watch with excitement.

I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

I watched this film at home on tv.

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