Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is a better film than its follow-up, Chappie, but it is also a more distressing one. Chappie is inept at the level of bare functional mechanics, but at least it feels like the product Blomkamp wanted to make (and, admittedly, proof that he does not much understand storytelling or tone at all). Elyisum, meanwhile, has the musty odor and schematic corporatism of the product he thought he was supposed to make. While Chappie is a fearlessly stupid product of personal vision, Elysium is an antiseptic epic (an antisepic, if you will) masquerading as a unique work of social parable and world-building. It is ungainly and poorly focused, using dirtiness as a cheap aesthetic trade-off in lieu of genuine emotional effect, and it is largely willing to trot out themes about inequality and social rebellion in increasingly arbitrary, insulting ways. That is, before it turns said themes into paltry excuses for lazy action entertainment, and Matt Damon. Continue reading
Upon releasing his sophomore feature, the generally indifferent Elysium, not two years ago, writer/director Neill Blomkamp was keen on ensuring that nonplussed audiences knew he was entirely willing to tacitly disown the film. He didn’t quite say that, but the implication was clear. Fitting, for Elysium seemed exactly like the sub-Ridley Scott piece of blockbuster arch-competence a promising young director would sputter out upon their introduction to the corporate world, a classic example of filmmaking-by-committee and a work whose primary sin was a complete and utter lack of passion or investment from its principles. It seemed like Blomkamp producing his idea of what audiences, and producers, would want more than the film he actually wanted to make. “For his next film”, one could almost hear him hush under his breath every time he spoke, “Blomkamp the passionate South African science fiction juggernaut would return”. Continue reading
District 9 is not a nuanced film, nor is its metaphor. Filmed in the slums of Johannesburg, there’s an eerie, earthen verisimilitude to the film’s physicality that simultaneously lends South Africa a depressing gritty realism and expounds upon its alienized social distance. But it is very obviously a parable of human exclusion and prejudice, literalizing the alien in the “other” of race by fitting it into a sci-fi story about actual space travelers. Parable isn’t quite right though – the film is more a vague satire, not particularly pinpoint but workmanlike in its broad-based feeling. Nonetheless, sharp it is not. If it really wants to stake its claim as something more than a bit o’ fun with new filmic toys propping up the seams, it’s on less sure-footing.
If it’s not particularly smart, Blomkamp’s directorial debut at least gets points for attitude. There’s a loose docudrama snark to the film that evaporates before the end but sees the film at its best. In the early stages, we meet Wikus van de Merke (Sharlto Copley), a low-level bureaucrat given a patronage position examining the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. Obviously, the real world implications insist upon themselves, but the film wastes no time in front-loading its futurist situation where an alien species has crash-landed on the city’s outskirts. Naturally, humanity does as humanity does and throws them into abject poverty backed by a sketchily defined system of cognitive stratification (one would hope the poorly defined nature of the oppression outside of the slum is an intentional commentary on sketchily-drawn racism, but it works more like Blomkamp just sort of dropped the ball on the broader political situation in this world). Soon enough, of course, Wikus is prey to his own catlike curiosity and finds himself changing to become…well, you see where this is going. Continue reading