Sharlto Copley is a South African actor who first came to prominence in 2009, in director Neil Blomkamp’s excellent District 9, a tour-de-force of relatively low-budget, indie science fiction film-making. This weekend, Copley came to American theaters in two new films: Blomkamp’s big-budget follow up, Elysium, which stars Matt Damon, and in the indie film Europa Report, in which Copley’s is arguably the most well-known name in the cast. Both films delve into science fiction to explore important themes and ideas, and each film relies on its own distinct visual style.
That, however, is where the similarity ends.
In District 9, Neil Blomkamp burst upon the scene as a visionary new director of science fiction. In it, he told the story of Wikus, played by Copley, a hapless bureaucratic dweeb who finds his conscience torn, challenged, and tested, due to his involvement with the “Prawns,” a stranded race of insect-like aliens restricted to a shanty ghetto in Johannesburg. The film is a thinly-veiled allegory for the horrors of apartheid, and with it Blomkamp proved his willingness to use the trappings of science fiction to draw stark moral challenges to the economically and politically privileged.
In his new film Elysium, Blomkamp plays on many of the same themes, though this time he has shifted targets from the apartheid government of South Africa to the modern United States, embroiled in the question of illegal immigration. Though one might think that the more topical theme would enhance the film’s impact, over-broad performances and simplistic writing sabotage the film from the start. As so many critics of America’s immigration policy do, Blomkamp unwisely conflates the “Haves vs. Have-nots” narrative of the Occupy movement with the question of Hispanic immigration, throwing in a healthy dose of “Free health care” polemics for good measure. The result, philosophically, is a mess, aiming for populism but falling far short into caricature.
In this regard, he is not helped by the performances of his actors. Matt Damon shambles through the role of Max, a semi-reformed criminal trapped in a 22nd-century Los Angeles that is now one big slum. William Fichtner plays a smaller role, providing a regrettable caricature of a spoiled, wealthy industrialist, and Jodie Foster turns in her worst performance to date, overacting her way through the role of Delacourt, the scheming Defense Minister for the wealthy denizens of Elysium. Sharlto Copley does some of the most interesting work in the film as Kruger, a soldier of fortune whose barely contained, homicidal rage propels him to his conflict with Damon.
Stylistically, Elysium carries forward the torch from District 9, relying on the same shaky camera work that lent the earlier film much of its documentary realism and intimacy. Here, the technique simply seems jittery, unfocused, and has the unfortunate effect of making some of the sequences harder to follow. The sole redeeming note from a production standpoint is provided by the spectacular special effects depicting the orbital habitat, Elysium, and the launch and low-orbit flights of the shuttles carrying passengers to and from the space station.
Thematically, though, the film is disastrous.
Rather than engaging in any meaningful exploration of the questions being considered, Blomkamp chooses to paint the issues in the most simplistic, one-sided terms you can imagine. The wealthy of Elysium, hoarders of seemingly cost-free, miraculous health care that can cure any disease or injury, exclude the impoverished Earth-bound rabble more from “Dog in the Manger” pettiness than from any practical reason. In this world, there are no material limitations to explain unequal distribution of goods; some people are just selfish and hateful, and that’s that.
As compared with Elysium‘s heavy-handed, barely disguised metaphors, Europa Report uses the tropes of science fiction—in this case, a near-future exploration of our solar system—as an opportunity for character study. The movie portrays the way that different individuals respond to fear of the unknown, and the sacrifices we are sometimes called upon to make in service to our own ideals. It’s a far subtler approach, though there is plenty of drama, and as such it does a more effective job of using a fantastic scenario to thoughtfully delve into its themes.
Directed by Ecuadorian Sebastián Cordero, Europa Report tells the story of a privately-funded mission to explore Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, host to perhaps the only other liquid-water oceans in the solar system, and thus, potentially, another home for biological life.
Stylistically, this film is striking: adhering to the “found footage” sub-genre of films, its contents are derived from on-ship cameras which record the story of the mission, and the tragedies and difficulties they face both en route to, and upon their arrival on, Europa. Despite the fact that “found footage” films are nothing new (The Blair Witch Project famously launched the sub-genre in 1999), the film manages a fresh, intimate tone, presenting realistic portrayals of the stresses and high emotions that can accompany such a mission.
Despite (or perhaps because of) having almost no marquee names in the cast, this movie boasts a roster of subtle, understated performances. As in Elysium, Sharlto Copley offers a well-crafted performance, though he plays a very different character. His James Corrigan, a technical specialist and engineer, provides one of the most emotionally wrenching moments of the film. Modestly-known actress Embeth Davidtz gives a quiet performance as the earth-bound mission controller, Dr. Unger. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a set of skilled unknowns and barely-knowns, including Michael Nyqvist, Dan Fogler, Anamaria Marinca, and Christian Camargo, whom Dexter fans might recognize as Dexter’s murderous brother from the first season. Each works solidly within the ensemble, contributing to a strong story without indulging in showy or hammy performances.
In telling a story like this, the obvious temptation for a more cynical filmmaker might be to posit some conventionally selfish, narcissistic, or short-sighted flaws in one or more of the characters which bring doom upon the rest. Certainly this is a theme that has been well-explored in modern science fiction: the recent film Prometheus was pretty well done in by this temptation. To Cordero’s credit, he engages in no such ploys; though his characters are not perfect, and each struggles with his or her own frailties, each crew member exhibits heroism and dedication to his or her own highest ideals, right up to the end. In an age of cynical movies and cheap, overblown heroics, it’s a brave choice, and it rings true.
Some have expressed disappointment in the “big reveal” of the ending; to those I would say: You missed the point. Even though the format presents a conventional “What is it?” sort of mystery to be solved, that answer is not ultimately the point of the story; rather, the movie delves into the important question of how we as frail, imperfect human beings strive and achieve greatness in pursuit of our own individual ideals.
At its best, science fiction uses the plausibly fantastic as a canvas on which to paint the most timeless of human themes. At its worst, it can fail at any number of points: by extending what is imaginable so far into what is not, as to strain plausibility; by rehashing tired, too-well-explored themes; by sacrificing storytelling to technical accuracy. In the final analysis, Elysium fails because it relies on the conventions of the genre to hide its flaws, which are themselves born of a certain intellectual laziness. Europa Report stretches itself beyond the limitations of its small-budget production and indie film constraints, in order to tell a well thought out story that touches on the timeless.
Elysium: 76% — C/C+
Europa Report: 91% — A-