Film Face-off: 'District 9' vs. 'Elysium'

Film Face-off: 'District 9' vs. 'Elysium'

Aug 12, 2013

Is "dirty science fiction" a genre? I guess if Mad Max is science fiction, then yes. Director Neill Blomkamp now has two feature films under his belt, and both would fit that category. Blomkamp makes sure we're not just getting aliens, laser guns and spaceships, but also a not-very-subtle political/social slant. Just because something has a message doesn't make it dirty. It's the dirt, the blood, the dust and the evil humans out for their own particular greed. In this week's Film Face-off let's see how District 9 compares to Elysium, and if Blomkamp has suffered a sophomore slump.

 

The Concept

District 9

Aliens have been on Earth for 20 years, with their alien ship resting above Johannesburg in South Africa. Humans round up the aliens, derogatorily called prawns, and force them to live in a government camp. A bureaucrat named Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is attempting to relocate the aliens when he accidentally sprays alien goo on himself.

Elysium

In the year 2154, the Earth has been ruined with pollution and overpopulation. The wealthy live in a space station known as Elysium where everything, including health care, is perfect. Max (Matt Damon) is doing his job, working for the man, when he is exposed to severe amounts of radiation, and the only thing that will save him is a trip to Elysium, which is forbidden.

Winner: District 9. If we only focus on the concept, it is definitely fully formed and more dynamic than Elysium. While both films deal with the idea of the haves and the have-nots, District 9 feels original, and somehow Elysium feels dated and not fully thought out. Both films seems to keep alive what they have determined are the subhumans (poor people and prawns) without a purpose. District 9 at least has an ulterior motive, with humans desperate for alien war technology. Elysium is about wanting health care, and not being allowed to have it.

 

The Reluctant Hero

District 9

Wikus seems to be working his job at MNU (Multinational United) because of his father-in-law. He’s the type that does what he’s told and doesn’t really think twice about it. He loves his wife.

Elysium

Max has been a troublemaker all his life, but finally wants to stop stealing cars, and walk the straight-and-narrow path. He does what he's told, but has a temper he's trying to keep in check. He has feelings for a childhood friend.

Winner: Elysium. Yes, this absolutely has something to do with the power of Matt Damon. Both of these characters are antiheros, but not in the normal way. For most of the film you feel stuck with both of them, but being stuck with Wikus is a little more difficult to take. Wikus is the type of guy you would desperately avoid at a party, especially if he's vomited all over the cake. Max has charm, as you can see when he's trying to make jokes with cop robots, or when he's hitting on Frey (Alice Braga) District 9 put Copley on the map, and Damon's Max will never be considered one of his best... but it's still Matt Damon.

 

The Supporting Cast

District 9

Besides Copley there is Louis Minnaar as Piet Smit, Vanessa Haywood as Tania Smit van de Merwe, Eugene Khumbanyiwa as Nigerian arms dealer Obesandjo, David James as Koobus Venter and the prawns, with the key prawn played by Jason Cope.

Elysium

Braga is joined by Jodie Foster as Delacourt, Sharlto Copley as Kruger, Diego Luna as Julio, Wagner Moura as Spider, and William Fichtner as John Carlyle.

Winner: District 9. I would have thought Elysium had this one wrapped up. With Foster, Fichtner and Luna, not to mention the return of Copley, the overall cast was more interesting to me than the plot. Unfortunately they are all very one-dimensional characters without a lot of flavor. Copley goes overboard, but he's almost a mirror image of Koobus. Fichtner was fun, but it's a small role. The most emotionally charged character hasn't even been mentioned yet, and it's Christopher Johnson's (the main prawn) son. This little guy is the reason I eventually cared about Wikus' success in District 9.

 

The Toys

District 9

There are plenty of alien guns that can only be used if you have alien DNA. Lasers, lightning, and sonic booms all seem to fire from those guns. The humans have typically military-grade weaponry, including a super sniper rifle, which is almost strong enough to take down an alien mechanized battle suit. The battle suit has plenty of bells and whistles.

Elysium

Robot cops have plenty of basic weapons. Sleeper agents like Kruger have rocket launchers. Exoskeleton suits can be drilled into humans for superior strength. Certain types of bullets can explode just before reaching their destination. Handheld forcefields come in handy against the preexploding bullets.

Winner: District 9 ties with Elysium. I want Blomkamp to continue to make science fiction movies, and it has nothing to do with his characters or stories. It's the toys. I can't choose between weapons that only work with alien DNA, a battle suit, an exoskeleton suit and preexploding bullets, and you can't make me! True story, that's the first exclamation point I have used on Movies.com. That's how serious I am. I feel like Blomkamp should be required by law to advise all future-based movies strictly in weapon design. Can someone start a petition?

 

The Problems

District 9

There is an occasional documentary style used throughout the film, with "experts" being interviewed. In other words, Wikus' journey is in the past. There is also the issue with this magical fluid.

Elysium

The fact that the space base Elysium is amazing, and people stuck on Earth don't have quality health care is repeated about 250 different ways. Besides being cool to look at, Elysium is completely void of any interesting discussions.

Winner: District 9. If you underexplain plot points, it at least creates conversation. If you don't bother explaining, or just forget to focus on what could possibly interest the audience, then we've got a problem. That's the difference between these two films. The fluid that sprays on Wikus is insanely magical, and it didn't need to be. It is the rocket fuel needed to power their giant ship AND somehow it also has the power to change humans into prawns. I also don't think the documentary style adds anything to the film, except letting us know that the human race survives without disastrous results. Elysium could have answered any of these questions instead of having me focus on a little girl, or repeating plot points. How many people live on Elysium? Are they always accepting new people who can afford it? Is this a good, long-term solution to a polluted planet? Is there really not even a spot in Canada worth living? Can't the people on Earth have a few super-healing machines? With all of the weapons, why wouldn't there be constant attacks on Elysium?

 

OVERALL WINNER: District 9 beats Elysium, 3-1-1.

Elysium lays it on pretty thick. It's a shame, because it is a great-looking ugly film. Just like District 9, Blomkamp plays with the grime of a science fiction world very well. Another odd thing that I didn't mention in the categories is the rating. Both films are rated R. District 9 earns this through violence, language and mainly Wikus picking, pulling and scratching his body apart while it transforms into a prawn. Elysium could have probably received a PG-13 rating if they have just laid off the F-bombs, which felt forced in this film (compared to other films like We're the Millers that seem to have a purpose behind it). Not even the power of Damon is enough to make me say you should definitely take a trip to Elysium (the film, not the space station, which from what I understand, is a work of fiction).

Categories: Features, Sci-Fi, In Theaters
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