To give life to an imaginary world, it’s necessary to give it physicality — flesh and bone, bile and blood, and, in science fiction, gears and wires as well. This defiant fleshliness is what made Peter Jackson’s take on Middle Earth seem gritty and plausible, even to viewers who didn’t know Gondor from a gondola. It’s what made the original Star Wars movies — with their battered model spaceships, their puppet Yoda — feel so much more authentic than the glossy, friction-free, entirely virtual prequels. It’s why the dripping horror of Alien still terrifies, why the acid-eaten Los Angeles of Blade Runner is always worth revisiting, and why so many effects-driven blockbusters today fall short — inspiring a “wow” but lacking the kind of tactile immediacy that separates reality from simulacra.
And it’s why so many of us were eagerly anticipating this summer’s Elysium, the second sci-fi film from the South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. Four years ago, in his surprise hit District 9, Blomkamp took a $30 million budget and made one of the best alien-invasion movies of recent years: a vivid, visceral story about bug-like aliens marooned in a Johannesburg refugee camp, variously hated, exploited, and misgoverned by their human hosts.