JC Chandor, the director of the critically acclaimed Margin Call (2011), made an interesting decision when approaching his second film: his debut was a dialogue-heavy ensemble piece about the financial crash of 2008, but his second film, All Is Lost (2013), starring Robert Redford, is a nearly silent film about a man lost at sea and has only one cast member. It’s as big a contrast between two films as you can manage, an attempt to prove that the director has a varied and interesting bag of tricks. Whether he was successful remains to be seen – although it opened in Cannes to a generally positive reception – but it does highlight the issue of that difficult second film; a hot young director fresh from the success of his critically adored debut, faces a big decision about whether to try something completely new or do more of the same but bigger and better. Neil Blomkamp, who directed the stunning District 9 (2009), is a bigger name than Chandor, so his next step has been keenly anticipated. His debut was Oscar nominated, produced by Peter Jackson and is seen by many as one of the great sci-fi films of the last five years, so what next? The answer is Elysium, and it is clear within the opening exposition of the film that Blomkamp has opted – disappointingly for some – to go with more of the same, only bigger.
Elysium opens with a short burst of information setting up the premise – the rich have left Earth after it became too much of a dump, choosing to live in the giant space-home Elysium, with its pretty houses and robot butlers and it flies above the earth as a constant reminder of the inequality of life. Immediately, the DNA of District 9 is tangible, establishing a thematically driven high concept which revolves around socio-political inequality. This time, however, the dividing factor is not species, but economics – the poor remain in grimy squalor while the rich choose to ignore the poverty that is literally and figuratively beneath them. It’s a kind of Occupy Wall-E Street idea. The same anger that coursed through D9 is bubbling beneath the surface here. As the main character goes through a series of unfortunate events that require an urgent and necessary trip to Elysium, this anger rises to the surface and sets in motion a final act that brings the two worlds crashing together.
District 9’s presence is felt not only within the themes of Elysium, but in the world building, too. The visual and technological ingenuity that Blomkamp brought so vividly to life in his first film is present and correct. This is science fiction, but of the dirt encrusted, makeshift variety where everything seems cobbled together by enthusiasts with soldering irons. LA in 2154 doesn’t present the clinical, clean future space of Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) or Oblivion (2013), but a noisy, messy world that actually feels lived in, more like Blade Runner (1982) or Children of Men (2006). Elysium itself feels a little more ‘Apple Store’ in its aesthetic, but even there the robots are slightly clunky and rectangular, and the film really kicks off when it is invaded by the whirring, grinding tech of Earth. The variety and credibility of technology on display is another testament to Blomkamp’s world creating ability. In a market of increasingly homogenised blockbusters, the ingenuity and invention that Blomkamp brings to his picture is like a refreshing punch in the face.
A punch in the face is an even more relevant image when you consider yet another recognisably Blomkampian aspect of Elysium – it is very, very violent. At the centre of most of the blood spilling is Sharlto Copley, leaving behind the role of sympathetic hero he portrayed so well in D9 to play Kruger, a contract killer. Copley is gleefully, cartoonishly over the top, which makes the violence even more uncomfortable to watch. Bodies explode, faces splatter and most of the time Kruger is laughing as it happens. As a result, the action sequences feel more urgent and tense than any superhero film where invulnerable people hit each other. People die, often and violently, so the stakes are raised and it’s incredibly exciting because of it.
So yes, Elysium is a lot like District 9: It’s politically motivated, has a similarly grubby vision of the future, is violent and features Sharlto Copley. Crucially, however, District 9 was a fantastic film, so this is no bad thing. You may feel like you have seen it all before, but when a director makes films this exciting and inventive, that doesn’t really matter. Neil Blomkamp is telling his own stories, in his own way, and he actually has something to say. As such, Elysium should be greeted with fanfares and a gigantic box office. It’s the best blockbuster of the year.