In 2009, first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp wowed critics and sci-fi fans alike with his humans vs. aliens apartheid parable, “District 9.”
For those who enjoy their science-fiction seasoned with thought-provoking subtext, in addition to action and ingenious special effects, “District 9” was a breath of fresh air.
No major stars appeared in the film, and it was produced for the relatively small amount of $30 million. It went on to gross in excess of $210 million worldwide, a huge profit for a movie that cost so little to make.
Thanks in part to a clever viral marketing campaign that featured stickers, posters and bus-side advertisements that mirrored the “humans only” signage from the movie, audiences arrived intrigued and left with something more to think about than merely the quantity and volume of the explosions.
The massive alien ghetto in Johannesburg, South Africa (Blomkamp is a native), and the huge mother ship that loomed endlessly over the city were very real. Even the film's grit was covered in grime. Much of the movie was presented in “mockumentary” style, using supposed news and interview footage, interwoven with scenes of "real-time" action.
Cruelty, violence and injustice were the hallmarks of the xenophobic human treatment of the insectoid alien "prawns." Like most great science fiction, the ending was bittersweet, at best. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay.
The surprising commercial and critical success of “District 9” has created a tide of great expectations for Blomkamp's sophomore outing, “Elysium,” opening Friday in theaters.
The director is also playing for much higher stakes. With a $115 million production budget -- still modest compared to the $215-million-plus spent on “The Lone Ranger" -- and major stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster as the hero and the villain, respectively, “Elysium” will need to do some serious business to be considered financially successful.
In a summer of some pretty cosmic box-office disappointments, such as "After Earth," "The Lone Ranger" and "R.I.P.D.," and tent-pole films like "Oblivion," "Pacific Rim" and "World War Z," which have been successful but not as successful as production companies would have hoped, this film should provide an interesting reading on the public's appetite for more large-scale sci-fi spectacle -- particularly if it manages to distinguish itself from the herd as a movie about ideas as much as action.
The film tells the story of Max (Damon), a factory worker on an overpopulated Earth in the year 2154. The "1 percent" have long since fled for the colossal utopian space station Elysium, leaving the remaining 99 percent to fight over the scraps on the ground.
After a nasty industrial accident, an irradiated Max is given five days to live. His only chance is to gain access to Elysium, where every home is equipped with a device that can cure any illness. But his way is blocked by Elysium's iron-fisted Secretary of Defense (Foster), who will apparently stop at nothing to prevent "illegals" from reaching the station.
In the course of events leading up to Max's planned incursion, he becomes responsible not only for his own survival but also for that of the leukemia-stricken daughter of a childhood friend and possibly the future of the entire human race.
Little wonder that, as the burdens upon him multiply, Max has to be physically reinforced by means of a cybernetically-activated exoskeleton surgically attached to his body.
Early reviews have been positive to mixed; it's currently a 66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the negative criticism seems to focus on what are perceived by some as the film's "heavy-handed politics." Few complaints have been leveled against the visual aspects of the movie, the storytelling or the performances of the actors.
I wonder if the politics seem "heavy-handed" because unlike “District 9,” which was a study of the bureaucratic administration of institutionalized racism/species-ism, "Elysium" concerns more relatable, typically "conservative vs. liberal" subjects like immigration class warfare, and health care.
Regardless, "Elysium" arrives with seemingly a lot going for it, if you're at all weary of sequels, reboots and massive spectacles with little going on beneath the surface. It runs for a less-than-bloated 109 minutes, and is rated R.