Science fiction has had a long tradition of using its aliens and spaceships as a way of tackling social issues without being too on-the-nose. Star Trek tap-danced around a lot of controversy by dressing its stories up in genre trappings; using minorities to talk about racial inequality was taboo, but using Vulcans and Klingons was just fine. Of course, the stories have to be engaging, or else nobody’s going to care how you get your message across. And that message had better be something more than, “This thing is bad, isn’t it?” It’s a trap Neill Blomkamp avoided in his feature debut, District 9, but one that trips him up in his follow-up, Elysium.
Part of what helped District 9 succeed in that regard was its focus on Sharlto Copley’s everyman Wikus van de Merwe. Not that the center of Elysium isn’t an ordinary man as well, but this time it’s Matt Damon in the role. Copley’s unknown status helped audiences identify with Wikus, and let’s face it, he’s no Damon in the looks department. So all our handsome leading man expectations went out the window, and Wikus’ eventual heroism felt all the more earned because it was so unexpected of him. With Damon, he’s a big damn movie star. And it’s hard for him to completely submerge that here in the role of Max. He slips a little too easily into the action star role, and all too often we get flashes of his wise cracking Ocean’s 11 persona. It’s a subtle thing, but when your theme is the little man struggling against the constraints of the system, you need someone who looks like he actually would struggle against that system. We had no idea where Wikus’ story would go. With Max, you have a pretty good idea right from the start, and this robs the ending of the same impact District 9‘s had.
It also doesn’t help that the social commentary here isn’t nearly as well-integrated as it was in District 9. It’s all pretty blatant “rich people have nice things while poor people suffer.” And it’s laid on with about that much subtlety. Blomkamp runs Max through such a run of misery that he may as well be underlining his thesis with a Sharpie: dingy home, oppressed by the authorities, dreary job, asshole boss, mortally wounded at work, you name it. Yes, Max is definitely one of the have-nots, so you just know he’s going to go stick it to the haves at some point. Those haves also don’t seem to have much motivation beyond being stereotypical unconcerned rich people. It’s all so black and white, with no nuance, and everything goes exactly as expected, with no insight, and no surprises.
What does surprise is the aforementioned Copley, injecting some much-needed life into the dour proceedings as Kruger, an agent of Elysium’s Secretary of Defense played by Jodie Foster. While Foster’s character is a bit of a cipher, Copley tears into Kruger with giddy abandon. His motivations are as murky as Foster’s, but at least he’s fun to watch. Also on the plus side, Blomkamp does do some good world-building and brings the action, one of the few areas where Elysium compares favorably to District 9 (even if the visual style seems like direct lift from the earlier film). There’s a matter of factness to the glimpses of future technology that are all the more impressive for how they don’t call attention to themselves, and the scale of the film is undeniable.
If only its execution followed suit. It’s the hint of ambition in Elysium that makes it ultimately disappointing. If it weren’t for the promise Blomkamp showed in District 9 and the hints of a more compelling story lurking under the surface here, Elysium would be a decent bit of sci-fi action eye candy. But that very promise leads us to expect more than that. By the time the tables have been turned on the haves, it’s neither surprising nor inspiring, things we know Blomkamp is capable of. Let’s hope his next film is more a have than a have-not.