Review: Elysium

Niell Blokamp’s action sequences pack a punch, yet his political metaphors share the same lack of subtlety

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Ramming some political metaphor into the mainstream, director Neill Blomkamp’s second feature-length film disposes of the middle class and magnifies the notion that the poverty line is in rough correspondence to the equator.

Blomkamp chooses instead the Earth’s clogged atmosphere as the borderland between the radical poles of the “first” and “third” worlds, and by extension, classes. It sounds like it ticks all the boxes for an edgy dystopian adventure: explosions, space-ships, robots, and that magical blockbuster ingredient, Matt Damon. As with James Cameron’s Avatar, Elysium is designed as sci-fi with an ethical heart – it has a social allegory entwined between the coding of its glittering computer graphics. However, similarly to Avatar’s preoccupation with the visual, Elysium’s Star Wars-esque bridge-battle denouement brands it more as a spectacle first are foremost –the emphasis on the explosions and CGI and have drowned out the humour and more nuanced social commentary that made Blomcamp’s debut release District 9 so sensational. The comparisons with District 9 seem unavoidable considering both films share themes of segregation and keen observation of the various forms of apartheid. However, the scene which actually stood out most was one set in a grimy manufacturing warehouse on Earth, where protagonist Max endures a pivotal moment of desperation and agony during a radiation accident which Blomkamp modeled on incidents in the Bangladesh textiles industry. It was disappointing that this mini-metaphor about outsourcing and sweatshop conditions wasn’t expanded upon, but a film with such an attentive and humorous eye on so many current issues (such as the automated bureaucracy of the parole officer), it is easy to forgive.

I assume that the emphasis on CGI was also the driving force behind writing the miraculous cancer-curing medical pods as the greatest basic need for Earth’s inhabitants, rather than a more realistic emphasis on clean water and reliable infrastructure facilities. Although, to be fair to the producers, trekking all the way to Elysium to find a decent plumber would probably be insufficiently engaging for even the most pragmatic; sci-fi has long been distorting reality to really drive home the bleak message.

There are some other elements that were full of good intention but were nonetheless half-baked and inadequately developed. Matt Damon and his Earthly neighbours are Hispanic speaking while their wealthy Elysium counterparts are French. Is this prophetically perceptive of current population and language trends? Or merely ethnic stereotyping – an easily recognisable “impoverished Mexican immigrant” trope for the American audience living near the border? Either way, once this shaky statement has been made after the first few scenes, any subtitling and even Damon’s Spanish accent is phased out to appease us sluggish blockbuster junkies.

Elysium is far from perfect – definitely focused more on concept and visuals than original plot and character development. It fails to pack the allegorical punch quite as it intended, probably due to the sacrifice of subtlety, but Elysium’s core observations are ultimately keen and intriguingly anarchistic. Elysium is happily guaranteed as high-octane entertainment, and at the very least it is a shiny token of things to come from this promising South African director, who now obviously has a colossal budget at his disposal.

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