Once upon a time in Johannesburg…
The film that was nearly Halo, Neil Blomkamp’s feature debut following a sterling career in short films and CG artistry. He’s the critical element, but also so significant here is lead actor Sharlto Copley, and the effects work of WETA. Though Elysium wasn’t much in the story department, or as a movie, Blomkamp continued on something revolutionary as begun with District 9 — actual scifi art direction in live-action film, rendered photorealistically by the New Zealand company.
Aliens have landed, and naturally, they’re illegal immigrants. They didn’t come to Washington DC like Klaatu, or LA like everybody else — they landed in South Africa, which has got a history with brutal segregation. As we discover, we need something from the aliens, and that’s why they’re stuck in this limbo.
Going into this film, I had no idea what to expect, just that the trailers promised some humor, some faux documentary cinematography, and a big robot. What I didn’t know about was the actual story, and a plot being shrouded in mystery within marketing is what scifi can do — it’s able to sell on other merits, like a high-concept world. We’ve never seen this sort of approach to an alien invasion. Suddenly the subgenre seemed ripe again, and that’s always cool when that happens.
For now, we follow van Wikus as he tours District 9 and evicts aliens, but begins to metamorphose into an alien and is knocked down a few socioeconomic pegs. Like in Avatar of the same year, he becomes something of a savior, but it’s not nearly as romantic or unambiguous. The ending may feel unsatisfying, but it’s true that most people don’t love the big action climax of the film as much as I do.
This is where the Halo DNA seeps in — the action in the robot rampage is fucking incredible. Heads explode, robots are lookin’ cool, the whole setting is perfect: it’s cathartic on the momentum of the story and character, and it’s aesthetically a high point for the entire decade of science-fiction film. All of the great art design displayed in the film prior is brought together here toward slam-bang greatness.
Van Wikus is a great character: funny, kinda jerky, and eventually heroic, but only when there’s no other option. He’s quintessential to the movie, which is realistic about morality. And yet, there’s something of a happy ending, or, as much as can be afforded here. We begin with apartheid, so we can’t end with daisy fields and sunshine two hours later. We end, instead, on a note of hope.
And damn. What a crazy ride to get there.