Original science fiction fare should be welcomed with open arms; all the better to stave of the safe familiarity of endless legions of sequels and remakes. And, with Oblivion, Pacific Rim and Elysium, all from uber-talented directors, this year held a lot of promise. In each case, to a greater or lesser extent, those uber-talented directors have been hobbled by the stark reality of their limitations as screenwriters. None more so than Neill Blomkamp, whose sophomore feature is replete with the same level of phenomenal action and beautifully rendered effects as District 9. Unfortunately, this time his story sucks arse.
Having some to say about the world is to be commended; that is, after all, what great science fiction should be about. Exploring grand themes about humanity, philosophy, morals and ethics; about ourselves. It is rarer and rarer for sci-fi not to be subsumed by spectacle, obsessing over the trappings rather than the content, but it does happen (last year’s Cloud Atlas, for example). Blomkamp has big things to talk about here, much as he did with his apartheid/immigration parable in District 9. He focuses on the post-financial crisis topicality of the rich 1% in Elysium, but this time he just hangs his topic there. He doesn’t have any insights, and his delivery is frequently asinine. The road to message-movie hell is paved with facile intentions, and Blomkamp has delivered a soggy, simplistic mess. It isn’t just that District 9 had a wicked streak of black humour running through it; it deftly sidestepped rubbing the audience’s face in its commentary (mostly) by deflecting it on strange and interesting aliens and idiosyncratic, charismatic characters. With such a remove, the unsubtlety of the message was less overt. That, and, it was very funny. Here, there’s only the earnestness, like a slug of cold porridge, as Blomkamp bares his message on his sleeve (or Matt Damon’s bloodied, mechanised bicep). And he forces us to ingest it, repeatedly, despite the protestations of our gag reflex.
Matt Damon’s Max lives on a squalid derelict Earth, where the populace aspires to a better life on a vast orbiting space station called Elysium. There the rich live, lording it up and having their every whim tended to, including the use of miraculous personalised medicare machines that cure any illness. Dogmatic robot police below regiment the scum down. Occasional doomed escape bids to this heavenly utopia, and the healing that it promises, are made. Max, a former thief, has gone straight. When he receives a fatal dose of radiation in a workplace incident, he agrees to a plan that could take him to Elysium and reconstitution (a plan that relies on belief-beggaring coincidence to evolve into Max becoming the saviour of humankind).
The opening scenes of little Max being tutored by a kindly nun, in what appears to be a return to District 9‘s Johannesburg shanty town but is in fact a Mexico rubbish tip doubling for future California, do not bode well. These reminiscences will recur as punctuation points throughout the movie, a sledgehammer of bleach-out slow-motion nostalgia, the push-pull between Max’s potential and his waywardness. It’s an over-familiar device without the depth of character that might extract it from the maw of groan-inducing cliché. There is so little substance to Max that the rose tinting is required to stand in its place; it’s all that is needed to give him motivation and affect the audience. But it fails miserably. We don’t empathise with Max because we never really get to know him. He larks about with street kids (well, more like dirt track kids, as there are no streets) and shows determination to stick to the straight and narrow. He finds time to wax his chest but is supposedly an everyman blue-collar worker; and check out his tattoos! This is the Hollywood 99 percent, where you can at least keep your dwelling spick-and-span when all outside has gone to hell.
If that had been the extent of the problems, it might have been an unconvincing characterisation but not insurmountable. Instead, Max not only has the fate of the Earth foisted on his shoulders but we’re introduced to his one-time girlfriend Frey (Alice Braga) and her cancer-stricken child. It’s at this point, as Frey’s superior at the hospital informs her that no, the poor wee lassie cannot stay there another night. And so it becomes clear this is storytelling of the crudest, most ham-fistedly manipulative variety. The doe-eyed moppet reads dusty children’s storybooks on how wonderful Elysium is, and that’s about the level of depth Blomkamp brings. Just with added splatter and grue.
Even Frey cannot resist those woozy flashbacks, as the sight of his Max & Frey 4ever tat (I exaggerate but it’s something similar) sends her into a spasm of reverie. I can only assume that Blomkamp, consciously or otherwise, was aiming for the resonance of Alfonso Cuaran’s Children of Men. Both films feature a not entirely noble protagonist and his one-time girlfriend, who sets him on a course towards his salvation. Along the way he finds himself rediscovering his soul and sacrificing himself so that mankind might live. But Children of Men is never cloying, and steadfastly refuses to resort to cheap manipulation. When Clive Owen’s character expires it is strangely appropriate. When Matt Damon wipes his memory (you just know an earlier scene, establishing that only an undamaged brain is suitable for the medicare healing, was inserted to establish that he can’t be saved; it’s that clumsy) it smacks of nothing so much as Blomkamp working through the broad strokes of a hero’s journey formula. There’s no meat on the bones and nothing fresh about his take.
The world Blomkamp has created just hasn’t been thought through. It is underpinned by a big shiny metaphor straight out of a pulp sci-fi novel. He then attempts to bind the components together with gritty realism. But it collapses in on itself under the weight of scrutiny; he only succeeds in spotlighting the lack of logic behind his premise. This vision is littered with great (if familiar) ideas (the ID stamps, the automated police force/parole centre, the overpowering claustrophobia of the surveillance state). Unfortunately, many more are half-baked; shooting a spaceship down with a super bazooka like something out a Roadrunner cartoon; there’s no indication of how these medicare units can reconstruct an entire face in seconds, other than it’s 140 years in the future (it’s magic!); or why, given the leaks of tech to the stricken Earth, there isn’t a thriving black-market in such curative measures.
The society in the sky is two-dimensional as the one on Earth; there’s a presidential council, a Secretary of Defence (Jodie Foster) but hardly anyone is there (all the houses are empty, it seems). The star is Syd Mead’s giant space wheel. Blomkamp does establish that this future isn’t racist as there is a President Patel and everyone speaks multiple languages; so it’s clear that this is not at all like D9, then. When a spaceship breaches Elysium’s (fairly shoddy) defences, we assume that this must be a one-off. Certainly, it seems like a rare occurrence. But down in the deportation bay there are masses of Earth citizens waiting to be ejected. It doesn’t make any sense (wouldn’t they all be bundled off on the next available flight?)
The director has made a one-percent movie with barely a brain in its head. All he has are good intentions, which aren’t nearly enough when the post-climactic happy ending arrives. It’s an assault of nauseating sentimental and shockingly nonsensical proportions. Now everyone can come to Elysium, but all those with maladies have priority it seems. So everyone will wait in line? Fat chance. Maybe the now friendly robot cops will have to use lethal force to hold back the throngs? And when the billions (?) arrive, are we supposed to think this space ark will be able to sustain itself? It will crumble and fall in hours. Oblivion had another (self-sacrificing) ill-considered climax, and also followed it with a scene that raised more questions than it answered in the name of a false upbeat final frame. But it pales next to Elysium’s daftness. It treats its audience like brainless simpletons, expecting us to swallow the proffered happy pill ending. If nothing else though, this is a truly jarring piece of work, one moment piling on the ultra-violence and the next bathing us in the sound of angelic choirs.
But, and this is the Elysium’s saving grace, as a technical display the film is astonishing. The staging, editing, action, effects, are all first rate. As clean and expansive as Oblivion’s vistas are, Elysium’s are raw, punchy and laden with grime (well, not the latter on the station itself). When a shuttle comes training into view (or a sports car model thereof) you never question its physicality. And when Matt rips the head off a robot, you can feel the explosive fury. Max’s encounters with Sharlto Copley’s Kruger are breathlessly pulse quickening and about as visceral as a main stream action movie can get without leaking guts and grue from the cinema screen. Blomkamp’s obsession with grisly body tech, horror, pulverisation, and transformation (akin to a much less cerebral David Cronenberg) is alive and well and exploding from a head near you now. Even here, his aversion logic occasionally intrudes however. You’re not convincing me that these exo-skeletons somehow protect the body from shattered bones, extreme impacts and concussions. Ninety percent of the body is still exposed to the elements. Matt hasn’t suddenly turned into Robocop or donned the prawn suit.
Copley is entertainingly evil up to a point, in a sub-Kurgan from Highlander way. But he represents just another extreme that undercuts Blomkamp’s serious theme. He’s a mechanised psycho who appears from holes in the ground he’s “activated” (and he must be very hot and stinky adorned in that heavy-duty potato sack). There’s something entirely random about the choice of villain. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him emerge magically from random objects; a dustbin perhaps, like Top Cat. He’s definitely no Buxton. For all the seething of menace and the black-eyed darkness (courtesy of contacts) he’s too rudimentary to be interesting; Kruger is a one-man slaughter machine, and as soon as we learn that rape is on his rap sheet, he’s obviously going to direct his weirdy attentions towards Damon’s girl. Copley’s decision to use his natural accent might be a mistake, purely because it draws attention to this coming from the same hands as District 9.
Jodie Foster gives a weirdly studied performance, I half wondered if she was trying to be a bit Thatchery, but with that strange vocal performance it’s anyone’s guess. Yet, with all the attention she’s received I expected her to be doing some kind of Golden Razzie-worthy performance (I’m sure she’s a shoe-in for a nomination). But she’s fine, and I didn’t find her off-putting. The rest of the support (Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura) are solid, but none of them have much to play with. William Fichtner’s hasn’t had the best summer; aside from a highly OTT line about being breathed on by one of the 99 percent, his nasal nerviness is underused. And him being 144 years old and all. As for Damon, it’s a good thing he’s a likable chap because Blomkamp doesn’t give him any support. Max’s character arc is vapid, but Matty never shrinks from giving it his all (Damon should perhaps avoid the shiny pate look; he more resembles a musclebound baby than a tough guy).
We end up asking too many questions about Blomkamp’s flawed spectacle, and so we’re only able to truly engage with it when the viscera are exploding towards us. Which surely isn’t what he intended. It’s a perverse argument for empty-headed blockbusters, if ones that do come along with convictions make such a hash of things that they’d have been best not to bother. The director has said he doesn’t like to write, and it really shows. He’s also repeating himself in multiple arenas on his only second excursion; obvious messages with little nuance, samey locales and design work, body horror. His next, Chappie, is supposed to be a science fiction comedy (two genres that tend to clash), co-written with Terri Tatchell. Hopefully he can claw back some distinction.