Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” – Fakery in lieu of satire

Poster for "Elysium"

In the distant future, Earth is a polluted, overpopulated wasteland, no longer capable of supporting human life. A privileged few have managed to escape into the only place left for them – outer space. But something is amiss. Humanity is stagnant – out of balance. All of its resources benefit a privileged few. But soon, a lone hero will venture forth from his ruined home planet to save humanity from itself. And that hero…is a cute little robot named Wall-E.

I made the profound mistake of rewatching District 9 the day before seeing Elysium. The former, Neill Blomkamp‘s 2009 feature film debut, posits an alternate present-day in which aliens landed 20 years ago, and now exist in a beleaguered slum in South Africa. District 9 revels in cynicism, and does so quite effectively. As a viewer, I patted myself on the back in smug self-assurance that – yes, that’s exactly how terribly that situation would play out. In fact, it would probably be a lot worse. Elysium posits a similarly broken and unjust world, but does so in a manner that feels completely derivative (see Wall-E) and isn’t particularly effective at world-building or satire. The viewer must either accept Elysium as a straightforward piece of populist propaganda – without an ounce of self-awareness – or simply enjoy it as a film in which Mecha-Matt Damon blows a few things up. I tried to enjoy the film on one of these levels, but found each of them to be lacking.

Many of the film’s action beats felt like pale shadows of things I had already seen in District 9. This included a few identical weapons, but let’s face it, rail guns are cool enough to include twice. Unfortunately, in several cases, the action direction and cinematography have gotten noticeably worse. The moment Damon put on his cyborg exosuit, all of his fights turned into fast-cutting, incomprehensible blurs. Whatever blend of physical and virtual effects was in play here, it clearly didn’t work well enough that they felt comfortable showing it for more than a half-second at a time.

Much of the world building of the earthbound slum (or slumbound earth) worked fine, and some of it even approached decent satire. The overwhelming reliance on automated law enforcement (including a hilarious parole droid) definitely hits a few familiar notes for American audiences. The problem is that the satire is basically non-existent on Elysium – the titular space platform. There is no allegory in place here. Elysium is America, or at least the most wealthy Americans. And this isn’t the future – this might as well be now. This attitude is readily apparent from the film itself (and the director has confirmed as much himself), and it might have even succeeded as a passable allegory if not for the one crucial detail- the most alluring amenity of Elysium is a medical bed in every home that effectively and instantaneously cures any disease or injury. You read that correctly. The MacGuffin in this science fiction film…is a magical healing bed that grants immortality.


That’s it, folks. That’s when I checked out of this movie. Because if you’re the person who is withholding the magical healing bed from the rest of the world, you are evil, you are irredeemable, and you are utterly boring. Saddling strong performers like Jodie Foster and William Fichtner with such one-note villainy feels like a waste, despite both of their passable performances. And the less said about Sharlto Copley the better. He plays a neat (if slightly incomprehensible) psychopath, but he feels like a bearded retread of David James‘ psychopathic soldier from District 9. He likes killing, he’s good at it, and he’s in gleeful service of a corrupt regime. If the regime itself had been a bit more believable, I might have enjoyed this performance a lot more. Copley is clearly having a good deal of fun with it.

Elysium should have worked as a concept. There was much about this world that made me intrigued, made me curious… I wanted to know more about how the government of this place operated. I wanted to know more about its relationship with Earth. The platform clearly possesses either the military might or political capital to exert force on the planet below (at one time locking down the airspace of Los Angeles through sheer force of will). There is enough implied substance here that the film could easily have built out that relationship further, peppering in the small details that would have made it a credible world. Science fiction (or at least its marketing) used to be about making the audience “believe” something. You’ll believe a man can fly. You’ll believe a spaceship can fly to Mars. As a film intended to make me believe in an orbital platform for the super-rich, the film was a total failure. All it really made me believe in was a world broken so badly that the film’s pretense of a happy ending provoked nothing but a mirthless chuckle.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

2009 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actor

#5: Sharlto Copley – Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9

Sharlto Copley in "District 9"

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with such a thoroughly despicable protagonist as Wikus Van De Merwe. He is vicious, self-serving, inept, and almost a complete coward. But newcomer Sharlto Copley (a producer and personal friend of director Neill Blomkamp) completely brought this character to life. Wikus begins the film as the consummate corporate stooge, showing obvious enjoyment and aptitude at his middle management job, even as he perpetrates some incredible acts of callousness and destruction in the alien ghetto known as District 9. Copley’s performance in some of these moments is downright giddy, with a thoroughly believable grin on his face as he supervises the abortion – via flamethrower – of an alien breeding shack (“It’s like popcorn!”). Copley’s character and plotline reminded me a great deal of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, and as with that film, if the character had remained the terrible person he was at the start of the film, there would have been little for the audience to connect with. But even as District 9 loses some of its more provocative social themes and becomes more of a big, fun action film, Copley’s emotional transformation becomes as real as Wikus’ physical one. And this is especially remarkable considering that every line of Wikus’ dialogue is improvised! (source). Copley gives a masterful performance that absolutely makes this movie work, and I’m simultaneously eager and a little frightened to see what he does next.

#4: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Tom Hansen, (500) Days of Summer

In my original review, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had once again proven his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “Third Rock from the Sun”. He was utterly charming in this film, proving as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding (as the story’s unconventional breakup narrative demanded). His chemistry with Zooey Deschanel was fantastic, and made this one of the most memorable romances (if not love stories) of the year.

#3: Jeremy Renner – SSgt. William James,
Anthony Mackie – Sgt. JT Sanborn,
Brian Geraghty – Spc. Owen Eldridge, The Hurt Locker

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker"
Brian Geraghty in "The Hurt Locker"

I’ll admit, this is a total cheat, but as I noted in my original review, I can’t single out any of these performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic Iraq War action film, The Hurt Locker, as the superlative one. As an ensemble, however, these three work immensely well. Renner’s performance is appropriately intense (and only slightly clichéd, as the new, loose-cannon commander of the squad), but Mackie and Geraghty are just fantastic, and make for ample balance among the three. The film features Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other… But thanks to these three performances, the dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

#2: George Clooney – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air

George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. Ryan is already a fascinating enough character just from that description, and Clooney’s performance delivers on every bit of promise the character demands. He has remarkable chemistry with both of his co-stars, and his relationships with each of them are completely what make this film work. As I noted in my original review, the film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan, granting him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shying away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity in a way that keeps Ryan’s rhetoric as one of the film’s most important themes, but stops it from becoming didactic. And later on in the film, as the character’s transformation becomes apparent, he completely conveys (but doesn’t overplay) how emotionally shaken Ryan has been by the film’s events. This is surely one of Clooney’s finest performances, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

#1: Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell/Sam Bell, Moon

In my original review of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I called it a film for people who love big ideas. The film’s “big reveal” comes in the first 15 minutes, as Sam Bell (Rockwell), the solitary worker of a lunar mining base, wanders outside to investigate a crashed lunar rover, and finds an unconscious clone of himself behind the wheel. As the film begins to explore its deeper sci-fi themes, Rockwell imbues each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. They both play to familiar territory for Rockwell – unshaven and slightly unhinged, but even as the film skips over the expected tropes of its genre (at no point does one clone chase the other around with a knife), Rockwell’s performance creates a compelling dynamic between the two. The only other character in the film is GERTY, the artificially intelligent base computer, which can only communicate its emotions via on-screen emoticons and the mellifluous voice of Kevin Spacey. But while the relationship between Sam and the computer is one of the most fascinating aspects of Moon, it is Rockwell that carries the weight of the film. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, this is Rockwell’s one-man show, and he acquits himself masterfully in the role.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report
  • Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody as Stephen and Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
  • Clive Owen as Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back
  • Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan in Adventureland
  • Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.