Tag Archives: “District 9”

Greatness eludes ‘Elysium,’ but Blomkamp is getting better

Film review

This film image released by Columbia Pictures-Sony shows director Neill Blomkamp, left, and Matt Damon on the set of "Elysium." The film, opening nationwide on Aug. 9, is a rogue burst of originality _ a futuristic popcorn adventure loaded with contemporary themes of wealth discrepancy, immigration and health care. (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures, TriStar, Kimberly French)

Associated Press image

Writer and director Neill Blomkamp directs Matt Damon on a set of “Elysium,” Blomkamp’s second big entry into the sci-fi genre.

Like his “District 9,” writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” is a worthwhile and entertaining but imperfect sci-fi venture in which Blomkamp takes the opportunity to inject social justice.

“Elysium” hits much closer to home here in the United States than “District 9,” which is set in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, did, however.

“Elysium” takes on at least four large American sociopolitical issues: immigration, class-based access to health care, the environmental degradation of planet Earth, and the phenomenon of the gated community, which is a euphemism for what actually are becoming privately militarized compounds as the filthy rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer and the rich want to keep the shit that they’ve stolen from us safe from us.

Set in the year 2154, in “Elysium” Matt Damon plays Max, a member of the poor working class in a future Los Angeles whose residents speak both English and Spanish. Most of Max’s companions, including his best friend Julio (played by Diego Luna) and his love interest Frey (played by Alice Braga), are Latino.

Like poor Mexicans attempt to get into the United States (although not nearly with the same frequency since the U.S. economy crashed and burned, like everything else did, under the watch of George W. Bush), poor and desperate Earthlings attempt, via spacecraft, to get into Elysium, the name of the gargantuan wheel-like space station that orbits Earth in space like the moon, and that like the moon, is visible on Earth. (The full backstory of the construction of Elysium is not given in “Elysium”; like the moon, it’s just taken as a given, which is OK, since we don’t really need the backstory anyway, since we already have a very good sense of how Elysium came to be.)

Protecting Elysium from the poor and desperate Earthlings who wish to reach it — the “illegals” — is the space-station plutocrats’ defense secretary, the sometimes-French-speaking Delacourt (an icy Jodie Foster) and legions of humanoid robots that keep the “illegals” (who even on Earth are deemed “illegals,” because they are not allowed admittance to Elysium) in line, mostly on Earth but also on Elysium should any of the “illegals” actually make it to Elysium.

Max, whose job is in a factory that manufactures the robots that keep the “illegals” in line, is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while on the job — there is no OSHA in Blomkamp’s dystopian Los Angeles — and is given five days to live, and he finds out that Frey’s daughter has terminal leukemia.

The elites on Elysium have the automatized technology to cure a human being of any malady (as long as he or she is still alive, anyway), and Max’s underground associate Spider (Wagner Moura), who is a futuristic coyote, has a plan that could take Elysium down, and so the film takes off from there.

True, as others have noted, “Elysium” does go off the rails a bit, as it goes from a social-consciousness movie into a typical Hollywood action flick, but then, it more or less saves itself at the end, when it returns to its social-consciousness beginning.

Matt Damon carries “Elysium” well. He is a reliable workhorse of an actor. And as his own sociopolitical views lean strongly leftward, my guess is that he infused his performance with the sense that with Blomkamp he is furthering good causes (because, methinks, he is).

I found Jodie Foster’s performance, however, to be remarkably stilted and lifeless. I mean, she was nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar and won twice. Foster’s character is supposed to be icy, I get that, but Foster nonetheless seems to have phoned it in. Some of this might be Blomkamp’s fault, however; as we get no backstory on or real development of Foster’s character, perhaps the two-dimensional portrayal is about the best that she could do.

And while Blomkamp apparently likes Sharlto Copley enough to have put the star of “District 9” in “Elysium” as well, Copley’s villainous Kruger, a mercenary who is on Delacourt’s payroll, is, as others have noted, over the top. Indeed, this villain, when compared to the other characters in the film, even that of Delacourt but perhaps especially that of Max, seems to have been cut and pasted from another film entirely… (Ditto for Kruger’s immediate associates, who also seem like refugees from a “Mad Max” movie.)

And like “District 9” does, “Elysium” suffers from some inconsistencies and some explanations that don’t make sense, as though Blomkamp hadn’t really thought all of it out.

The ubiquitous humanoid robots that keep the “illegals” in line on Earth suddenly go mostly or even entirely missing when the action moves from Earth to Elysium, and while our protagonists and antagonists battle it out on Elysium, I found myself asking myself, “Where the hell are all of the robots? They’re all over Earth, but they’re missing in action on Elysium?”

Apparently a “reboot” of Elysium’s “core” (its central computer) somehow is going to remove President Patel (Faran Tahir) — whom the right-wing, merciless Delacourt despises because she considers him to be too soft and too merciful toward the “illegals” (whose spacecraft she just wants to blow from the sky as they try to reach Elysium, without exception) — and, presumably, put Delacourt in the deposed Patel’s place.

How, exactly, the mere rebooting of a central computer would achieve that change of guard, Blomkamp doesn’t explain. Nor does he explain how the mere reprogramming of Elysium’s “core” to recognize all Earthlings as citizens of Elysium would magically mandate that all Earthlings automatically are to receive the level of medical care that the denizens of Elysium get.

I mean, it’s not like reprogramming a computer, no matter how powerful it is, is the same as reprogramming human beings. (That said, the craniums of the denizens of Elysium apparently are linked with implanted, wireless circuitry that at the least allows them to communicate hands free [Google and/or Apple is/are working on this right now, right?], and there is a character [a CEO whose corporation Max works for, played by William Fichtner] who, much like how R2-D2 held the plans to the Death Star, holds the plans to “reboot” Elysium inside of the small computer that is implanted in his head, where he has downloaded the plans, but, presumably, the over-privileged denizens of Elysium cannot be reprogrammed into believing that they actually had elected someone else as their president or that the destitute denizens of Earth suddenly now are their sociopolitical equals.)

Also, if we are to buy the central premise of “Elysium” — which is that the rich and the powerful tiny minority (the 1 percent, if you will) have fled the increasingly overpopulated, diseased and polluted Earth for their own mega-gated community in the sky, and that they have done this in order to protect and to preserve the limited, apparently scarce reserves of life-enhancing things for themselves — then how can we buy “Elysium’s” ending, which apparently portrays the 1 percent’s hoarded resources, or at least their hoarded medical-care resources, as being enough to serve at least the entire area of Los Angeles, but apparently even the entire Earth?

This does not compute…

Still, despite “Elysium’s” flaws, it’s a more than watchable film, it’s an improvement over “District 9” (and so Blomkamp seems to have a promising career ahead of him), and it’s great, of course, to see a mainstream film take a socialist-y stance on current hot topics such as immigration, access to medical care, environmentalism, and, of course, the ugly phenomenon of the gated community, which is but a manifestation of the insanely great class division that we see in the United States of America today.

I don’t expect American wingnuts to love this film, and that’s a great thing.

My grade: B+  

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Jackson-endorsed ‘District 9’ watchable but often nonsensical and lacking detail

The alien's stalled mother ship in a scene from "District ...

This movie still released by Sony Pictures shows, left to right, ...

Reuters and Associated Press images

Arthropodic extraterrestrials’ ship is stalled above Johannesburg, South Africa, in stills from the Peter Jackson-endorsed “District 9,” which came in at No. 1 at the box office this weekend.

I love a good science fiction movie, especially one with political overtones, and since according to Yahoo!’s roundup, the film critics gave “District 9” an average grade of “A-“ — and since “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson gave “District 9” his stamp of approval (he is one of the film’s producers, and the ads for “District 9” tell us this) — I dragged the boyfriend to it yesterday.

I give it a “B.”

“District 9” has some interesting concepts, such as the apparent parallels between the “prawns” (the crustacean-like extraterrestrials put in a concentration camp called District 9 in South Africa after they found themselves stranded on Earth) and the Palestinians in occupied Palestine, and private military corporation “MNU” (“Multi-National United”) and private military corporation Blackwater, but “District 9” has too many elements that just don’t make sense for me to be able to give it anything higher than a “B.”

Where to begin?

There is the mysterious black liquid extract — we’re never told what it consists of — made in an ET’s shack like an impoverished, desperate person might make methamphetamine in his shack, and this mysterious black liquid, which took the ET two decades to make, not only powers the stranded ETs’ ship, which still hovers (somehow — that’s not explained either) over Johannesburg, but also somehow slowly turns the human protagonist into one of the ETs after he accidentally splashes himself with it. (The mysterious black liquid probably is a great stain remover, too…)

Then there is the alternating view of the ETs’ capabilities. At first they’re portrayed as rather savage and stupid, caring only about feasting upon livestock carcasses (especially the heads, for some reason) and canned cat food (yes, canned cat food), and then at least one of them, the protagonist ET, is portrayed as having quite sophisticated technological ability, far surpassing that of humans.

The human protagonist is portrayed as being about as sympathetic to the ETs as any of his human counterparts are ever going to be — he doesn’t like it when the ETs are exterminated wantonly by MNU’s hair-triggered, testosterone-overdosed mercenaries — yet in one scene he demonstrates that he has no problems with the destruction of the ETs’ young, noting that when set aflame, the ET-ling pods make an interesting popping sound. (Apparently the ETs are to get human approval before reproducing, and these young thus were “illegal.”)

If District 9 is a closed-off area meant to contain the ETs, then why do the ETs have such frequent, such apparently casual contact with the South African gang members?

Speaking of which, how, exactly, do humans and the ETs have sexual relations? (Apparently female human prostitutes cater to the male ETs, and the protagonist human apparently is accused of having had sex with a female ET.)

What exactly were the medical experiments that MNU was conducting on the hapless ETs?

Was the protagonist ET especially intelligent for his kind? Was he a special kind of his kind? Were the other ETs like worker bees, not meant to be very intelligent?

While I love to empathize with an extraterrestrial, especially a benign one persecuted by ignorant humans, would a crustaceous extraterrestrial really regard its offspring the way that a human male would regard his son? Would the crusty ET’s offspring really be kind of like a little boy? And wouldn’t such an ET have many offspring, and not just one? And where was the mommy ET?

“District 9” is watchable enough, but I’m the kind of person who needs a movie to make sense.

I’m sure that it’s not easy to create such an alternate reality as director and screenwriter Neill Blomkamp did in “District 9” — there are so many angles that you have to look from in such creation, and so many details that you have to create in order to satisfy those angles — and I don’t have to have every little thing explained to me, but what is (more or less…) explained to me at least should have its own internal logic.

When it doesn’t, that interferes with my ability to enjoy the film, and that’s why I can give “District 9” only a “B.” It’s a good-enough idea, but its execution is lacking. Attention to its own internal logic seems to have been sacrificed for special effects, such as the climactic battle scene of the protagonist human in the automated body armor that is too reminiscent of what we’ve already seen in “Iron Man” and even in “Aliens” (ditto for the fried alien eggs; we saw those in “Aliens,” also).

My grade: B

P.S. I’m not familiar with South Africa’s history, but film critic Roger Ebert explains in his review of “District 9”:

The film’s South African setting brings up inescapable parallels with its now-defunct apartheid system of racial segregation. Many of them are obvious, such as the action to move a race out of the city and to a remote location. Others will be more pointed in South Africa. The title “District 9” evokes Cape Town’s historic District 6, where Cape Coloureds (as they were called then) owned homes and businesses for many years before being bulldozed out and relocated.

The hero’s name, van der Merwe, is not only a common name for Afrikaners, the white South Africans of Dutch descent, but also the name of the protagonist of van der Merwe jokes, of which the point is that the hero is stupid. Nor would it escape a South African ear that the alien language incorporates clicking sounds, just as Bantu, the language of a large group of African apartheid targets.

Being unfamiliar with South Africa, the parallels between the real South Africa and the South Africa portrayed in “District 9” were quite escapable to me… I still see a parallel between the “prawns” and the Palestinians, however, and with the plight of the Palestinians being portrayed in the media to this day, it seems to me that I’m probably not alone.

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized