Film Review: Elysium
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producer: Neill Blomkamp
Studio: Alpha Core
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley.
It goes without saying that I am fond of movies which try to be something more than what they are and do so without becoming pretentious about it. Very few movies pull that magic trick out of the hat and when one does you can be sure that people will remember it for years if not decades to come. When it comes to writing a story that is intended to be relevant to contemporary society one can do no better, in my eyes at least, than writing science fiction. The glorious thing about writing engaging and speculative science fiction is that directors can use the pistache of the future to compare what we know against something hypothetical. This is exactly how director Neill Blomkamp succeeded in hitting the most epic cinematic home-run of the past decade with his debut film District 9. When it was announced that Blomkamp would be taking some time away from the engrossing universe he created with that 2009 masterpiece I was slightly disappointed but was won over when I heard the premise of Elysium.
Is Elysium a worthy successor to District 9? Was it worth taking three years away from the latter’s universe to delve into something new? Unfortunately the film falls short in both challenges but still proves to be a decent summer film, but sadly not much more. I fear that in this case Blomkamp has fallen into what I like to call “The Nolan Trap”; where once a director does something so fantastic, so groundbreaking, and so eye-opening that anything less thereafter just feels like a let down even if the film itself is fine.
Elysium is set in the year 2154 in a future one can somewhat see from here. The story begins with some necessary prologue exposition explaining that sometime in the twenty first century the earth became overpopulated, resources began to run dangerously scarce, and that wealth disparity gap became exponentially huge. In the face of social tension arising between the ‘haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ the wealthy of the world fled the planet to an orbital space station called “Elysium”. This is of course an unmistakable allusion to the current economic, mineral, and social crises we face in the world of today. We’re soon introduced to our lead character Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former car-thief and parolee trying to earn a meager but honest living in what remains of Los Angeles. One day whilst at work Max is accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, relieved of his job by his detached employer, and essentially left to die. In the face of certain death in five days time Max resolves to find a way to Elysium no matter the cost so he can receive advanced medical treatment only available to the ‘haves’. Along the way Max unwittingly becomes a pivotal piece of a conspiracy stirred up by the Elysian secretary of defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a conspiracy that could well end up altering the course of history.
Elysium’s strongest suit is it’s setting and it’s aesthetics. The future here looks incredibly bleak and it works great given the context of the story. The world of 2154 ranges from the heavily industrialized mega-factories to the downtrodden and impoverished slums which have replaced the sweeping city-vistas that once adorned the world. It is gritty, downcast, bleak, and completely believable considering the setting. The weaponry and technology also looks the part as well: futuristic for sure but not too far removed from what we might recognize. Max’s plight is serviceable as a vehicle to drive the early stages of the story but as the conspiracy begins to unravel and he realizes what is actually at stake here even he seems to forget that he is essentially a dead man walking. Sharlto Copley, fresh off his success with Blomkamp in District 9, plays the role of the psychotic bounty hunter/sleeper agent “Kruger” a bit too well and ends up overshadowing Matt Damon – a real achievement when you compare their acting resumes.
This unfortunately brings us to what doesn’t work with this film. Here, whilst I am covering shortcomings, I think I’ll jump into the Nolan Trap myself. However, once you consider that the last (and ironically first) film Blomkamp directed was District 9 the comparisons to his previous work become simply unavoidable. Having gotten that out of the way let’s continue! My major issue with the film was it’s story. Now, I know that I have just said that I found the story and all of it’s subtext engaging but there is still something missing from it, something that could have made it whole. What made District 9 work so god damn well is that for most of the story you were not being shepherded towards a particular point of view, there were grey-areas a-plenty and you were given liberty as an audience member to formulate your own opinions. Here however the black and the white are contrasted right away and as a result you never see this from the viewpoint of the ‘haves’, you only see that of the ‘have-nots’. I know your average movie-goer is not likely to empathize with billionaires and the seemingly untouchables but a more even-sided story would have not gone amiss. It’s not careless direction though as Blomkamp and his actors are clearly dedicated to this idea and to this story, it’s just careless writing.
Some of the characters are ultimately forgettable as well, Damon and Copley are the two stand-outs amongst a frankly bland cast but even then the character Damon portrays could just as easily been taken up by any other actor. I’m going back to District 9 here but the journey of Wikus van der Merwe HAD to have been made not only by a South African but it HAD to have been made by a personality of a particular type. Inter-changeable characters work in some cases, but it doesn’t work here, especially when you’re trying to tell a character-driven story of personal resolution and endurance. However, to the credit of the writers I really liked the concept that it may well end up not being a surge of hostility from the lower classes which ends up dislodging the elite from their perches but rather in-fighting amongst those with power but no respect for it. The use of Roman terminology (such as the film’s title and namesake amongst other things!) I felt was an excellent and subtle allusion to this belief.
Before I wrap this up I feel I should re-iterate my stance on this film. It is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, it just feels like it could have been so much more than what it ended up being. Based on it’s concept alone one would hope that Elysium would deliver a powerful social statement akin (again…) to District 9 but the trailer shows you what it ended up becoming to it’s detriment: A popcorn flick. You cannot tantalize audiences with a story which has a very good chance to resonate with so many people in today’s world only to pull the rug out from under them and descend into a stock action-film.
That is Elysium’s biggest crime.
Final Score: 7/10