I was extremely impressed with director Neil Blomkamp’s debut film District 9, which I thought used the science fiction genre to effectively examine issues of poverty, injustice, and racism. The thing that impressed me most about District 9, though, was the moral ambiguity that it presented through its characters. The film’s protagonist is introduced as a cowardly, self absorbed, insensitive, and unlikeable person. Through the course of the movie, however, we see him evolve and change as he is confronted by various life events until, by the end, we actually find ourselves empathizing with and caring for him. With Blomkamp’s follow up film, Elysium, I was expecting, and looking forward to, a similar exploration of human fallibility and the grey areas between moral “rightness” and “wrongness.” Unfortunately, that’s not the film that I got.
Elysium is by no means a particularly “bad” movie, and Blomkamp’s signature narrative style is very much still on display here. The film effectively conveys the feeling of a poverty-stricken future world full of chaos and decay, where a small group of elites lives blissful lives off-planet while the rest of the world goes to hell below them. Matt Damon plays a credible ex-felon, a man on parole trying to hold down an honest day job in a callous and unforgiving world. The events that unfold around him are genuinely engaging and genuinely heartbreaking. Blomkamp presents us with a colorful cast of characters and some wonderfully over-the-top action sequences.
However, I can’t help but feel disappointed by how much more black and white this film seemed to me than District 9. Granted, that film also had clearly defined villains, but for me its greatest charm was in winning me over to feeling sympathy for an unlikeable character. Elysium, by contrast, seems to have been made as more of a summer blockbuster. There’s never any question that Matt Damon is the hero, nor is there ever a question that the people running things from Elysium are all a bunch of insensitive S.O.B.s who care nothing for the sanctity of human life. It’s all just a little too “pat” for my taste.
I was looking for something to examine some of the complexities surrounding world poverty and inequality. Instead, I got a straightforward good-guys vs. bad-guys shoot ‘em up, a film which seems to posit the idea that poverty and inequality could easily be solved through the simple touch of a button. That may be fine for those looking for a fun summer action movie. For my expectations, though, Elysium was something of a let down.