2013, 109mins, 15
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Cast includes: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura
UK Release Date: 21st August 2013
Looking back at summer 2013, the movie-going season has proven itself something of a non-event. It started on a promising note with “Iron Man 3”, but since then the misses have outweighed the hits, dependable purveyors of mainstream entertainment like J.J Abrams, James Mangold and Gore Verbinski all falling short of expectation with their various blockbusting excursions. However even as mediocrity largely reigned supreme, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel; because summer 2013 was the time we would finally get a sophomore film from “District 9” virtuoso Neill Blomkamp. After making a cracking entry into the world of feature-length science fiction in 2009 with his tale of alien slums, Blomkamp has slowly been mounting a return, arising in the form of another fantasy parable; “Elysium”. Expectations for the movie were admittedly high, but even if they’d been more moderate, I doubt this final product would have impressed much. In comparison to the nuanced and socially conscious thrills of “District 9”, “Elysium” comes across as positively foolish in spots. It’s a handsomely mounted vehicle with moments of sensory empowerment, but the imagination, commentary and fluid storytelling of his previous output has been lacerated, substituted in favour of videogame styled temperament and unanswerable stumbles in logic.
Midway through the 22nd Century, Earth is now a ruin, the more prosperous portion of the population having taken to an exotic space station named Elysium to continue humanity’s march of progress. Unable to gain access to the paradise amongst the stars, Max (Matt Damon) is busy redeeming his questionable past by immersing himself in factory work, helping to manufacture the droids used to police the Earth. After an accident leaves him with only five days to live, Max becomes obsessed with reaching Elysium, where they possess medical apparatus that can cure any ailment promptly. Striking a deal with Spider (Wagner Moura) – an individual who specializes in gaining illegal access to Elysium – Max agrees to steal the bountiful secrets of businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner, heartbreakingly underused) in exchange for passage. However the information in Carlyle’s head amounts to more than they could’ve predicted – leading corrupt defence secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and deranged mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to viciously begin hunting Max down.
If “District 9” ran tight parallels with Apartheid struggles in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, then “Elysium” aims to tackle classism in a less precise, and consequently blunter manner. The societal ideas communicated amount to a simpleton shouting “RICH PEOPLE SUCK” loudly from a roof-top, as the upper-classes of “Elysium” lounge around their pools all day, failing to share their all-healing uber technology with anyone. It feels more like a half-baked concept than an actual narrative undertone, the medical bays themselves providing issues on a more fundamental storytelling level too. These facilities can seemingly cure anything with precious little regard for time, cost or alternative health consequences, robbing the macguffin and subsequently the story of tension or poignancy. There needs to be a constrictive measure on this sort of instrument, otherwise it’s just a clumsy screenwriting get out of jail free card, a problem exacerbated by the fact the technology’s very presence renders the story pointless. Why after his accident can Damon not be permitted to use the super device for the 5 seconds required? Surely his Elysium based employers keep one in their offices? Why are the immigrant smuggling purveyors of transportation focusing on getting people to Elysium? Why not just build a few of the medical bays themselves and fulfil their dodgy financial yearnings that way? There are so many questions, nearly all of which are undercut to some degree by Blomkamp’s life-giving invention. I suppose it’s necessary to motor the thin story forward, but it ultimately proves a writing curse, a nasty disregard for storytelling principal excused in order to give “Elysium” momentum. It’s idiocy I tell ya.
The quality of acting is wildly uneven. Damon is stoic but unremarkable in the leading role, just about sympathetic enough to gain interest but never kinetic enough to excite. The real problems come elsewhere, chiefly in the guise of Jodie Foster’s bizarre and ultimately thankless role as a snide Elysium politician, the normally capable actress concocting a silly accent, glaring like a petulant child and mucking up basic line delivery. It’s genuinely weird to observe, and what’s more the character eventually amounts to nothing. She gets no pay-off, no big moment to learn the error of her ways or fully detail her contempt for the current heads of state. One moment she’s there. The next she’s not. Poof. Characterisation is another thing “Elysium” struggles with, evidenced by the groaningly contrived dynamic built up between Damon, love-interest Alice Braga and her daughter – which literally has its foundations on an unmotivated scene of intimacy that makes the child come off as a crafty wind-up merchant. You’ll know the moment (it involves a Hippo), and I frankly can’t see any logical reason for the dialogue to progress in such a manner. The child possesses none of the context that appears to fuel her seemingly cute allegory, yet during the finale it inspires Damon into hysterical fits of heroism. A saving grace is Sharlto Copley-who frankly seems to be in a different movie -but at least remembers to have fun with his nefarious quirks.
Blomkamp is an ace world-builder; the bedraggled Earth he depicts here does emit a tangible aura of steamy hopelessness. It almost feels like the director is exploring the deprived corners of “District 9” on a grander scale, cinematographer Trent Opaloch building sun-baked claustrophobia out of Blomkamp’s vision. The action in the final act is a crisp, coherent and enjoyable, climaxing on a note of purpose, suspense and audience investment. The earlier portions are much less successful, Blomkamp favouring jerky shootouts riddled with two dimensional supporting victims and unending streams of videogame possibility over any semblance of reality. Characters extract firearms from dead-bodies during pivotal moments, deploy unexplained force fields in order to prolong set-pieces and in the case of the hero, boast an advantageous exoskeleton that no other human appears to deem appropriate for combat. This provides Damon’s protagonist with an unstoppable edge until the dying moments; just another dumb plot-hole to leave viewers exasperated.
As a shell of a science fiction extravaganza, “Elysium” is pretty to behold and stuffed with potential, but ultimately it cheats hope. The movie falls victim to so many little irks that I’ve almost forgotten to mention how clunky the initial portion’s pacing is. It genuinely bores for the first 45 minutes of its otherwise reasonable runtime. Blomkamp is still aiming high here, and there’s definitely some merit in his attempts to make the film mean something beyond the CGI explosions and genre conventions, but this time it hasn't worked out. I’m sure he’ll bounce back with an intriguing feature again at some point, but “Elysium” signifies he might not be the messiah of thoughtful science-fiction we all so quickly jumped to proclaim him after his auspicious debut.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013