By Philip Newton (England)
Before watching Elysium I heard several positive things about director Neil Blomkamp’s previous effort District 9 and was pleasantly surprised with the results. Blomkamp’s sci-fi thriller is tense and spectacular, with CGI special effects that heighten the experience but do not over populate the frame. Crucially the film manages to be fresh and resonant due to its social conscience which runs throughout like the proverbial stick of rock and manages to excite and inform in equal measure.
District 9 start’s its story with an alien spaceship which has positioned itself over Johannesburg in South Africa, to which the government treats the aliens (or prawns) as otherwise known because of their appearance, as refugees and houses them in the slums of a government camp known as District 9. However tension soon escalates between the locals whom immediately take a dislike to the new arrivals, to which the government decide to relocate the Prawn’s by sending in a private military outfit to handle the situation.
Immediately from the very beginning the film establishes its tone of being very realistic taking on the feel of a documentary, scenes play out through news reports and government heads talking to the camera. I became instantly engaged with this idea of how aliens would be treated given the genuine nature of their surroundings, and how a government would treat them.
When we are introduced to our lead character Wikus van de Merwe played here by Sharlto Copley, it is handled in similar fashion as a piece of documentary news footage, which also cleverly works as character development. We understand our hero is a bureaucrat with a dedication and excitement to the assignment which he has been given, but who is also a loving husband to his wife. I sensed at this point that was a sense of duality to his character on the one hand his corporate brownnosing persona made me uneasy, however his loyalty displayed as a husband appeared congruent.
The character displays considerable charisma which instantly makes Copley a truly engaging screen presence in this film, I was not bored but intrigued by the role he would play which would be crucial later on.
The scenes which follow involve the issuing of the eviction, and are crucial for several reasons, one because of how they are handled technically, Blomkamp uses the camera like a documentary crew reporting the state of unrest in small town slums, and the camera is shaky and uneven and often cuts to different footage very abruptly. The second reason is the themes explored, for here we truly get a sense of the idea of xenophobia which the film wants to reflect. This is shown to occur amongst the local’s and the aliens, as well as between some of the military outfit who simply want the aliens to go to once they came.
Finally this is also the point where the film makes the transition towards the sci-fi fantasy element of the story. When Wikus becomes infected by some alien spray he finds in a shack, he begins to take the form of one of these creatures, to which the government obsessed with being able to use alien weaponry, which can only be accessed by alien DNA think they have found a breakthrough. When Wikus escapes he becomes the governments most wanted man and his realization about his employers become evident.
The second half of the film takes the form of a traditional science fiction narrative, and on its own may not have worked, however compliments the more realistic early scenes by being very well made with spectacular special effects as well as being emotionally wrenching based on its humanist approach.
The film’s action scenes are well filmed and work by being both fast paced as well as controlled. The special effects don’t overwhelm us, instead excite and entertain in the appropriate manner. The camera work likewise retains a steady hand and is not frantic and out of control which will hopefully not give everyone a headache.
The film also involves a great degree of emotional engagement, the way the aliens are used especially in the dialogue with Copley, is very believable and moving. And although it is more conventional science fiction along the lines of a Spielberg film, contrasting the earlier scenes, the balance of a ground-breaking approach with trusted storytelling is effective.