Elysium transports us into the year 2154, where Earth has become a Third World ghetto planet where the poor and downtrodden reside, while the wealthy elite have moved off-planet into the pristine and technologically advanced orbital community known as “Elysium.” Enter Max de Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-felon working a dead-end blue collar job. One day while on said job, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, leaving him with just five days (and a lot of desperation) to make it to Elysium where a cure awaits.
In order to make his journey, Max is recruited by a local gang, who outfit him with an exoskeleton capable of helping him break into the most secure place in the universe. However, Max’s scheme snowballs into a larger plot, and when Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), gets wind of the plan, she activates her secret police force to bring down the perpetrators – a pack of wolves led by the ruthless and cunning Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Before long, Max is in over his head, with Kruger on his tail and a mission that quickly changes focus when an old friend (Alice Braga) asks for Max’s help in saving her dying daughter.
Writer/director Neil Blomkamp made a splash with his first feature-film, District 9, combining some self-styled technical wizardry with a timely socio-political story to create one of the more innovative and relevant sci-fi movie experiences of the last decade. Set against that impressive achievement, expectations for Elysium are high – but does the movie live up to the hype? In short answer: only halfway.
As both writer and director of his sophomore effort, Blomkamp must be held accountable for both the great and terrible halves of this conflicted whole. On the directorial side, Blomkamp continues to demonstrate real filmmaking creativity and innovation, bringing to life the world of 2154 in vivid, grounded, realness. From the filth-ridden conditions of Earth to the pristine setting of Elysium, this is a world that is well realized, with visual effects that put a lot of other films to shame.
In terms of action, Blomkamp’s talent is second to none when it comes to creative design and implementation of weaponry and gadgetry. It’s a real shame that Elysium is so painfully short on action (just one or two scenes, really), because in the moments where we do get it, it is unlike just about any other cinematic experience out there – though quite like many of the most popular video games played today (in a good way). Like so many other directors of today, though, Blomkamp could stand to pull back and give his audience better view of the fight sequences; but again, the uniqueness of the world and technology makes up for deficiencies in the filmmaking technique. On the whole, Elysium is a very impressive directorial endeavor, and (visually speaking) is well enjoyed in full IMAX splendor.
Now for the rub: The story, characters, and overall thematic and/or metaphorical point of the film are all poorly conceived and implemented. In terms of story, Elysium is all over the place with its focus, full of plot holes and strange idiosyncrasies, and fails in the principal task of selling its protagonist (Max) in convincing fashion. Who to care about and how to feel about them are questions that plague the narrative, and the third act just unravels completely into a race-and-chase sequence whose grand payoff is a hoodwink effort of paper-thin ideological fantasy.
Indeed, the much talked-about themes and metaphors about economic inequality come in and out of focus as the narrative takes its detours through the many subplots of its many secondary characters (read: distractions), resulting in muddied arcs that are not even interesting to the characters themselves. Worst of all, the heavy-handed thematics of the ending preach a message that anyone with a middle school degree could poke holes in; Elysium tries to say something profound, forgets to make its point half the time, and ends up just saying something naively fantastical. Worst of all, it’s not even much fun. The narrower focus of District 9 seems better suited to Mr. Blomkamp’s scripting abilities; this script – with all its lofty ambitions – got away from him.
Caught in the middle are a cast of actors who mostly look unsure of who they should be playing, and how they should be playing them – with the exception of Sharlto Copley, who has a manic good time playing the unhinged Kruger. When Kruger is on the screen (whether in action or monologue), Elysium is crackling with a good, menacing villain; when Kruger is not on the screen, Elysium loses just about any spark it has (both literally and figuratively). Copley is just energetic enough to carry things – even when his character’s motivations and personality are a vague mess.
Damon, Braga and Foster’s characters, on the other hand, are all over the place. Foster sports a distracting accent (French? German?) as her character floats listlessly through the narrative with little significance; Damon tries to pull off his arc as earnestly as possible, but there is no solid foundation (read: good writing) under his feet, and Max’s act-to-act persona shifts are unearned and are hardly relatable or engaging. Braga’s character decisions and motivations also seem vague and inorganic – clearly the contrivances of a scriptwriter trying (and failing) to stitch larger overarching concepts to more personal character drama. As honorable mention, there are some sufficient supporting turns from character actors like William Fichtner (Lone Ranger), Diego Luna (Contraband) and Jose Pablo Cantillo (The Walking Dead) that help prop up the solid middle section of the film.
It is hard to discuss Blomkamp’s second effort without some mention of his first, and in that sense, Elysium is a disappointment when viewed as a follow up to District 9. It is way too early to start making (the inevitable) M. Night Shyamalan comparisons; Blomkamp is, no doubt, still a highly-skilled, unique and innovative directing talent. However, in carving out an early niche as a maker of sci-fi films with very insightful and important real-world things to say, Blomkamp has also placed heavy demands on himself as both a director and writer responsible for creating the best possible halves to that complicated formula. Elysium only gets the formula half-right.
Elysium is now in theaters. It is 109 minutes and is Rated-R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.
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