While a debut feature has the pressure of achievement, it has no pressure of external expectation. When writer/director Neill Blomkamp delivered District 9 in 2009, few knew of his work with the result that the film was a welcome shock. Featuring an unknown cast and filmed entirely on location in South Africa, it was a bold and confrontational examination of exploitation and xenophobia, a science fiction film which contained enough action to hold multiplex attention without sacrificing the ideas and themes which define the best of the genre.
For Elysium, Blompkamp has secured a budget almost four times that of his debut, with star names including Matt Damon and Jodie Foster alongside support from William Fichtner, who worked alongside Foster on Contact, her sole previous science fiction credit, world cinema actors Alice Braga and Diego Luna, and Sharlto Copley, lead of District 9.
In the year 2154, reformed criminal Max Da Costa works on the production line of Armadyne, a job he is told he is lucky to have. The Earth is diseased, polluted and overpopulated; the wealthiest inhabitants have fled to Elysium, the shining gated community which glitters in the skies above the Earthly slums.
After a confrontation with the vending machine which functions as his parole officer, Max is bullied into entering a high risk chamber in order to keep his job, and when the chamber is activated he is subjected to a lethal dose of radiation, his prognosis giving him only five days to live.
His only hope is to reach Elysium where advanced medical technology will be able to reverse the cellular damage, but Max lacks the citizenship and the funds even for black market passage; instead, an offer is made that he will be ferried to Elysium on the agreement that he will undertake a mission which will open the gates for all.
Like District 9, the tech is heavy and solid, lending the world a vital reality; when illegal immigrants are greeted it is with extreme prejudice, though crucially the missiles are surface launched, so Elysium is not compromised. Conversely, the medical technology is akin to magic, an instantaneous and non-invasive panacea mediated by sparking lights, undermining the efforts towards realism elsewhere.
Damon is a reliable leading man, ably supported by the ensemble, particularly Copley as the mercenary Kruger, personal one man army of Elysian Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt, a far cry from the likeable if flawed Wikus van de Merwe of District 9.
Delacourt is ambitious and ruthless, and as expected Foster is as flawless in her rehearsed arguments as in her French and English accents, though her role is limited to a somewhat one-note extended cameo, never having to confront the consequences of her actions, as removed as Elysium itself, one of many missed opportunities.
The plot relies too much on contrivance – that Max would be injured and have the right contacts and be in the employee of the company whose executive is the courier through whom Delacourt is simultaneously planning her coup – and had the film been able to demonstrate a defiant honesty in execution, this could be overlooked, but while Blomkamp confirms himself as an important voice in film, this is a compromised work.
The use of subtitles indicate a literate target audience, yet other information and emotion is spoonfed, fractured memories of tinted childhood intruding into the film past the point where they are necessary to establish history and motivation, instead telegraphing feelings the film should be able to elicit without such intrusion.
Elysium itself, as close to an Orbital as has ever been seen outside the pages of Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, is an unrealisable dream whose ambition would far exceed the technical and material requirements to say nothing of the unseen “worker class” which would be needed to maintain the services aboard such a vast structure.
Not so much a science fiction film but a parable intended to illuminate a point while drawing attention away from the narrative deficiencies by sleight of hand, or in this case, big explosions, the flaws highlight the gap where intelligent science fiction should exist, and it is hoped that having proved his ability to please a summer crowd, Blompkamp’s next venture will balance spectacle and depth.