Of Hippos and Meerkats: Neill Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM

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Let’s face it: Neill Blomkamp is a man of great expectations. The young filmmaker was plucked out of obscurity by Peter Jackson in the wake of several impressive commercials and short films, and ever since then, he’s been on the radar of seemingly every big-budget, genre franchise in Hollywood. After his attempt at a live-action HALO feature fell through (in spite of Jackson’s collaborative efforts), he went on to direct the celebrated DISTRICT 9, a movie which landed him Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Academy Awards. He has since gone on to turn down offers to helm the latest instalments of both the STAR TREK and STAR WARS universes. Not too shabby for a kid from Johannesburg.

So, when it became clear that Blomkamp was far more interested in telling his own stories than in playing in somebody else’s sandbox, expectations mounted again. Here was another fresh face for the genre community, one determined to tell original stories. It’s a sad fact that this has become a rare treat these days, but it’s the harsh truth of the current Hollywood climate: big-budget, genre pics don’t often get made anymore if they’re not based on existing properties.

Enter ELYSIUM, Blomkamp’s long-awaited, sophomore follow-up to DISTRICT 9. Less allegorical than the content would have you believe, ELYSIUM drops us into the year 2154, where Earth has become a diseased, polluted and wildly overpopulated wasteland. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to take a look at this desolated landscape and see a kernel of truth at its core – population trends for our planet have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary fiction (notably, not just in science-fiction), and we’re reaching a boiling-over point. What happens when we’ve used up all our resources on our own planet, and yet have done little in the way of extraterrestrial colonization?

The answer Blomkamp arrives at is a simple, elegant and perfectly logical one: our class divides would effectively segregate the population even further, necessitating an entirely new habitat for the upper-class – one which does not associate itself with the desolation it has the means to ignore. And so we present the Have-Nots, left alone on Earth to their poverty, famine and general slum-based existence, and the Haves, wallowing in idyllic splendour, up in the titular space station orbiting Earth. The wealthy seem to spend their time doing one of two things: dressing up in pretty clothes in order to entertain guests, or dressing up in skimpy clothes to catch a few poolside rays.

It’s not the most original premise, but it is one that is fundamentally sound and is a relative hotbed for social commentary – something which Blomkamp proved himself adept at with the Apartheid-laced segregation of his debut. It’s the kind of concept that would find itself fitting comfortably alongside latter-year versions of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS or even from the original run of STAR TREK.

Wisely, however, Blomkamp doesn’t seem overly concerned with banging the social reform drum too loudly. Sure, the film has its share of left-wing (maybe even socialist) interpretations, but they seem less an intended message than a natural product of the narrative. In a story with a class system divided so deliberately, having the lower-class rise up against their oppressors isn’t the equivalent of having a political agenda; it’s simply the only logical place the story can go, because history has proven to us time and time again that this is the only possible outcome of segregated classes. Blomkamp uses this premise as a jumping-off point to tell his story, but doesn’t linger too long on any one “message”. After all, our hero isn’t a revolutionary leader or a great resistance fighter – he’s just a selfish, troubled man who uses whichever side of the political landscape that will offer him the momentary advantage.

And that’s where ELYSIUM succeeds. It would have been much too easy for Blomkamp to set up Max (Matt Damon) as a political idealist. And if he had, then any and all criticisms about agendas might have been valid. But he doesn’t paint him as an idealist. He paints him as a normal, humble man; one who has felt and lost love and has made more than his fair share of mistakes in his past, but is ultimately a good person. He’s selfish, and he worries about his own needs, but he has a good heart, and he plays the cards he’s dealt. Max is not a hero. But he is our only protagonist, and a fairly realistic one at that. It’s not difficult to imagine that, given the circumstances under which he finds himself, we might also do the things which Max resorts to in order to just live his life – a life which is fundamentally unfair and troubled by injustices. His navigation of the political landscape is completely dependent on what he needs for himself and the people that he cares about, and nothing more. As those needs change and shift over the course of the film, his allegiances change and shift as well.

But truth be told, ELYSIUM’s major strengths do not lie in its story. Though it is perfectly functional, its characters arcs and motivations clear and distinct, it is not exactly the most compelling or unique narrative. It’s fairly easy to know where the story is going early on in the film. Luckily, that slight predictability is not enough to keep you from enjoying how the film unfolds, and that’s largely due to a few stellar factors that allow the film to retain its originality and creativity.

The first is Sharlto Copley. ELYSIUM’s cast is (mostly) made up of good performances which help ground the occasional silliness: Damon does a great job, William Fichtner (John Carlyle) is terrific (as always) but tragically underused and Wagner Moura (Spider) has a blast with his eccentric arms-dealer / political leader. The rest of the cast is fine – with the notable exception of Jodie Foster, whose performance is a unique and powerful misfire – but Copley comes out on top with his deliciously hammy Kruger character.

ELYSIUM has its share of over-the-top sensibilities, and Blomkamp knows it. When it comes to depicting the upper-class characters, the actors all share a very particular diction pattern – one which is nearly melodic in its overly-deliberateness. It’s almost as if Blomkamp ordered his upper-class-level actors to take the snottiest, most blatantly-defined diction and assume that would be how these rich folk of the 22nd century would speak. It works for some characters (like Fichtner, who manages to make it sound almost robotic, something which lends itself perfectly to his bureaucratic character), but not for others (like Foster, where it can at times be painful to watch). It’s an interesting choice, and it shows that Blomkamp is willing to let his actors have a little fun with their roles.

But nowhere is this more obvious than with Copley’s Kruger, the renegade operative living down on Earth. He’s absurd, he’s ridiculous, and he’s wonderfully entertaining to watch. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Copley – who played the clean-cut Wikus in DISTRICT 9 – let loose in a role like this, where rape, murder and a hilariously mysterious cloak I can only assume he found in a dumpster are all part of the job description. His delivery is perfectly absurd, and he seems to relish every word. And does a rogue sleeper agent who has been biologically enhanced with technology really need to carry a sword? Of course not, but it’s all part of the fun.

The second factor is Blomkamp’s impeccable – at times arresting – visual style. Though there are plenty of gorgeous images in this film, it’s the inventiveness of the imagery that really transcends. Several of the shots in the final action sequence are almost Edgar Wright or Zack Snyder-esque, with speed ramps and dolly shots blurring the line between reality and CGI. In another sequence, Blomkamp somehow manages to reproduce the snorri-cam shot from a distance as he follows Damon’s character into battle. Seeing a Blomkamp film means seeing things that you probably wouldn’t get in a normal blockbuster, and that will always be refreshing, no matter the film.

Lastly, there is the world-building. One of the most important weapons in any genre filmmaker’s arsenal is his or her ability to color each world they create with new and exciting ideas, creations and situations. Blomkamp is no different. His knack for imaginative ideas is on full display here; the film sometimes feels like it is absolutely bursting at the seams with imagination. Sure, the robotic police officers are not exactly breaking new ground, but the scene between Damon and his fast food restaurant mascot-inspired parole officer is priceless. From the vast amount of individually-unique weaponry (specifically the guns, which Blomkamp seems to have a real affinity for) to the various pieces of tech (like floating, holographic screens which appear out of thin air to update citizens with necessary information), Blomkamp and his team never spend too much time explaining or pointing out any of the world’s idiosyncrasies. And the mark of a fully-realized world is when there’s so many things to see, most of them need to be glanced over as givens, rather than objects of curiosity.

ELYSIUM is a quality entry in this year’s crop of blockbusters, and a welcome return by Neill Blomkamp. It may not reach the levels of DISTRICT 9 – which, admittedly, set an unrealistically high bar – but it’s a competently-made, original sci-fi film, and that’s definitely something to be encouraged by people who have grown weary of seeing more remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin-offs than they could shake a stick at.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

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One thought on “Of Hippos and Meerkats: Neill Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM

  1. This is an excellent essay — not just because I agree with you — but because you’ve correctly identified every referent I identified and wove a compelling analysis. Thanks for this. There’s one reference I’d like to add to yours. Larry Niven’s Ringworld. I thought it was inventive and compelling that Blomkamp modified Syd Mead’s 1975 Stanford torus and amalgamated it with Niven’s Ringworld circumferential habitable ribbon. It supported the major plot development of illegal immigration into ‘Elysium I.’ Brilliant.

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