After Neill Blomkamp’s stunning breakout success with District 9 (which I still maintain was unfairly marketed in favour of Peter Jackson!) any follow-up, District 9 sequel or not, was going to be highly anticipated and highly scrutinised. It’s fair to say that Elysium divided audiences, fans and haters alike.
Elysium is set in a future dystopian Los Angeles, where the poor are condemned to a life of hardship and ill-health. The rich have migrated to space to Elysium, a utopian settlement on a satellite, littered with mansions, lush gardens and most importantly, health scanner machines which restores the health of civilians, whether it’s cuts or cancer. The mere set up of the story in Elysium makes for a typically predictable plot, with overly emphasised themes of class, race, wealth and economy. But then again, we had the same in District 9, which is why I find it hard to stomach that Elysium has been written off as too blatant, too forceful with its message. Sure it’s not got the same subtlety or finesse as District 9, but I think Elysium has its own merits, successes and failures.
One of the more notable criticisms I do agree with however, is the casting of Matt Damon. His performance in Elysium is engaging and believable, I’ve always been a Damon fan. But it’s not difficult to miss the fact that he is very much a white, American male, with a Mexican name in a city of Mexicans. It kind of detracts from the film slightly, but why not cast a Mexican actor if he’s supposed to be Mexican? In this respect Elysium highlights racial marginalisation and enforces it. It’s not exactly unknown that Mexican immigrants in America are pretty much held down in society, rarely shown achieving success in high-powered jobs or acquiring wealth in ‘The American Way’. Mexican depiction on-screen tends to be confined to two stereotypes, gangs and drugs. And nothing really changes here in Elysium. Although arguably, despite their illegal activity, pretty much all the inhabitants of Los Angeles are shown in a considerably more positive light than the ‘rich whites’ of Elysium.
Elysium keeps very much in the visual style of District 9. Blomkamp is truly a master of urban ruin. I love looking at Blomkamp’s films, they are so rich and interesting. I think that he is truly a master of depicting steampunk poverty (the only words I could think of to describe it). The layers of dirt and grime combine perfectly with the corruption and immoral behaviour, providing a rich environment in which the actors can draw on the true personality of their characters. And no one does this better in Elysium than Blomkamp superstar Sharlto Copley, or as he will forever be known, Wikkus. He truly is evil and despicable in this film, particularly when he’s talking to Frey. In fact all the ‘horrible’ characters in this film are particularly nasty, Jodie Foster’s Jessica, William Flichtner’s Carlyle, Damon’s boss, who causes the accident leading to Damon wanting to go to Elysium, at any cost. But Sharlto takes a rather sinister turn, which at times is a little forced, but nonetheless, his character providing the second half of the film with its driving force.
Action fans will enjoy Elysium, there are some great fight scenes, not full of shaky camera movement making the action incomprehensible, but smooth and flowing, allowing you to enjoy the spectacle and dare I say it, revel in the violence. But I think this is the point of Elysium, we are supposed to be engrossed. Whilst I know a lot of people will disagree with me, I think it does this successfully. We are supposed to be involved, supposed to identify with a ‘side’, and by the end of the film I was firmly cheering for planet earth, despite all it’s obvious flaws.
I really enjoyed Elysium, it’s not a scratch on District 9, but to judge against District 9 is unfair. Of course it’s not as good as District 9, but on its own, Elysium is a thoroughly enjoyable film, with some pretty gruesome unexpected moments of gore, a gripping story that keeps you on your toes. It’s not showing us anything new, class wars, poverty, sacrifice, wealth, but the way it’s shown is unique. Darker, grittier, with a satisfying conclusion.