District 10

Niall Anderson sees Matt Damon scowl his way through Elysium

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was a punky man-in-jeopardy sci fi thing, with good effects and good performances. It had a hundred small ideas that it deployed to excellent if fleeting effect, and a single big idea (that racism is bad) delivered with enough heat that it powered the film without feeling cheap. Lots of people liked District 9. Unfortunately, one of those people was Neill Blomkamp, who has elected to remake it with a bigger budget and more Matt Damon and call it Elysium.

Once again, we’re in the near future (2154) in a racially divided cityscape (downtown LA). Our workaday hero is exposed to toxic materials (radiation here; mutating fluid in District 9) and must fight to save himself. His enemies take many forms – most of them shooting at him – but his biggest enemy is Prejudice. At this point some windswept music will play on the soundtrack, as if emotionally emptied out by the sheer thought of Prejudice.

Jodie Foster as Linda Evangelista. In the future. In shoulderpads.
Jodie Foster as Linda Evangelista. In the future. In shoulderpads.

Prejudice, in this case, sits in a supra-atmospheric space station called Elysium: a closed community of limitless comfort and riches, created as a bolthole for the superrich when Earth became overpopulated and under-resourced. For such a paridisal place, Elysium has an oddly paranoid atmosphere. Indeed, its Minister for Defense (Jodie Foster) plans to snatch the presidency by playing on this paranoia – scapegoating refugees from Earth who try to breach the station. And now here comes Matt Damon’s Max, with his fatal radiation poisoning, trying to break into the one place in the galaxy he knows he can find a cure.

Politically, this is all very broad: it’s half immigration debate, half Occupy. But for the first half hour or so the blend of tossed-off satirical indignation and fully realised action scenes carries all before it. As in District 9, the confidence of the telling – the accumulation of rapidly parsed local detail – is a genuine pleasure. Blomkamp’s blasted futureworld feels, if not plausible, then alive to itself and powerfully suggestive.

Alas, then, that Blomkamp has to stop being suggestive and usher the audience towards something resembling a conclusion. The thrills and spills pile up effectively enough throughout, but the closer the film gets to its end the less coherent it becomes. The actual finale is so blandly utopian that it rather undoes the sharp and sour politicking of the rest of the film.

Still, this is the first Hollywood film I can remember to basically suggest global Communism as a cure for human inequality, so props to Blomkamp for that. He also gets props for casting Sharlto Copley – his hero in District 9 – as a bad guy here. As in the earlier film, Copley does a lot of dramatic heavy lifting without seeming to: the gaudy violent flamboyance of his role allows him to underplay, and slow the film down to his pace. One has the real sense of actor and director in perfect lock-step. Damon, by contrast, is all scowl. Foster, for her part, is all accent. And goodness me, what an accent. Imagine Margaret Thatcher doing an impersonation of Nelson Mandela to cheer up Enoch Powell. In space.

Elysium has had a solid but unspectacular box office since it opened in the States last week. This is about what it deserves, and the incidental pleasures of Blomkamp’s eye and ear as writer/director certainly deserve another crack at a big Hollywood picture. Elysium has all the ingredients, but finally, in several senses, the picture isn’t big enough.

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