District 9, however, was none of those things. Its aliens aren’t slender green men with wide black eyes and shady motives. They look a hell of a lot like shrimp and just want to fit in, like the rest of us. They don’t live in stainless steel pods with glass domes and touch screens. They live in slums, shantytowns on the outskirts of an Earth city because their ship is out of resources. Their presence on Earth isn’t an invasion for the sake of invasion. They are there because they have nowhere else to go, and they are at the mercy of the humans who put them in those slums.
Blomkamp’s Johannesburg felt crushingly real, which is why its searing allegory of apartheid was so effective. We weren’t just sucked into the world because of its aesthetics, like we were with Avatar. We didn’t marvel at the technology or the aliens because, well, there wasn’t a lot to marvel at. It looked like a realistic, practical vision of aliens and alien tech. So instead of pulling us into the world using flashy effects and overwhelming the senses, Blomkamp pulls us in to Johannesburg because we can really see ourselves there. It’s so believable, so down to earth that we skip right past all the wide-eyed wonder at the world and we start to look at the people: what they think, what they believe, what we would do if we were in their situation. Johannesburg, 25 years after alien refugees land as a last resort, is terrifying.
The audience is especially drawn in to Blomkamp’s vision because of the film’s mockumentary style, which introduces us to a host of South Africans involved to varying degrees in the ghettoization of the prawns. Some are business executives concerned only with profits, others scientists examining alien weaponry. Their different opinions give us a slice of South African life and tell us a great deal about the world Blomkamp created. How do these people see the prawns? What do they believe in? The use of interviews to explore facets of life in Johannesburg negates the need for using more of the film’s tiny budget on special effects. We are both told, through these interviews, and shown, through Wikus’s story arc, what this world is like. District 9 is so effective because it crafts this environment with such conviction, but knows exactly when to have its political allegory take the driver’s seat and let the science fiction elements fade to the background.
Elysium, on paper, should have an even easier job of creating that same allegorical magic that District 9 captured. And yet it just isn’t quite as convincing. Let’s just put aside some of the other issues with the film like scripting and really stupid accents (I’m looking at you, Jodie Foster). Let’s just look at the world Blomkamp creates and how it compares to District 9.
I have no complaints about Los Angeles in 2154. It feels claustrophobic, dirty, overpopulated—every bit as convincing as Johannesburg is. It’s Elysium we’re hungering to see more of. Yes, visually speaking it’s impeccably crafted and dazzling. We see brief glimpses of their lavish parties, their luxurious clothes, their Bugatti spaceships, but we never see any substance. The only residents of this idyllic halo we really meet are the President, his cabinet, and Secretary Delacourt. And they’re, well, pretty crazy. They’re so wrapped up in their own selfish desires and intentions that we never get a chance to examine their characters, how they fit in with the larger fabric of Elysium. Why didn’t we see more of the general populous of super-wealthy inhabitants of the space station? What do they think about themselves, each other? The mockumetary style used in District 9 would have solved this issue, but then Elysium would have essentially been District 9 re-skinned. Props for switching up the format, but there’s a hole in the environment that just isn’t filled. It never brings us into its world, envelops us in its utopian halo in the sky, which is what’s so disappointing about the film as a whole. Blomkamp has proven his skill as a director and storyteller, but his examination of class warfare and the 1% in Elysium just never reaches the heights of District 9.
Blomkamp has this amazing ability to create these detailed, gritty, believable worlds. He makes realistic science fiction, a rarity in a genre fraught with post-apocalyptic hellscapes and giant sea monsters. His movies transcend traditional B-movie sci-fi; they’re smart, they really mean something. By bringing issues like apartheid and economic inequality into these futuristic yet realistic settings, he forces the audience to look at the subject matter in a different perspective. The science fiction aesthetic enhances the moral and political themes he is trying to convey and helps the audience absorb them in a very seamless way.
Neill Blomkamp dares to build these worlds that aren’t beautiful, that aren’t fantastical and flashy. They are very gritty, very dirty, and very real. And that’s a rare thing. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
District 9 is available on home video and Elysium is currently in theaters.