Film Review: Elysium
Writer-director-producer-animator Neill Blomkamp seemed to spring out of nowhere in 2009, but the auteur has actually been in the game for a while, building a steady portfolio of commercials, shorts and TV series since the 1990s. Honing his directorial chops over such a period allowed him to launch a sneak-attack on Hollywood with the excellent District 9, and – lo and behold – merely weeks after its release, sci-fi had found its latest boy wonder. District 9 was such a critical and commercial firework that anticipation has been sky-high for Blomkamp’s next move: this year’s blockbuster Elysium.
In the same vein as its predecessor, Elysium is based in a grim and grubby alternate reality, this time set 150 years in the future. Decades and decades of conflict have led to a hyper-polarised state of class warfare, between the poor – who live on the overpopulated, over-polluted Earth – and the wealthy, who have been granted citizenship on Elysium: a luxurious and elaborate space station which orbits the poisoned planet. After being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while on the job, industrial worker Max Da Costa’s (Matt Damon) only hope for survival is making it to Elysium and accessing its state-of-the-art medical facilities. He volunteers to assist the Earth’s underground resistance in return for passage to the space station, but he must also contend with Elysium’s ruthlessly cold Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her top mercenary, Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley): a tough-as-nails badass who is seemingly indestructible.
Visually, Elysium is stunning, and Blomkamp has done marvellously once more in constructing a wholly immersive alternate reality. Earth itself is a thoroughly disturbing place, and the film is riddled with nightmarish visions of dust-caked concrete vistas, all smeared in lurid graffiti. Elysium itself is a whole other story: a beautifully sleek and stylish vessel which is as aesthetically arresting as it is structurally fascinating. Caps off to the production design team, and to Syd Mead in particular, who has added another wondrous futurescape to his booming roster.
We’re given just enough time to admire the alternately harsh and clinical beauty of each world, because the plot itself quickly escalates into a balls-to-the-wall actioner of the 1980s sci-fi mould. The Terminator provides another key point of reference here, as a multi-layered game of cat-and-mouse is set in motion, combined with a race-against-the-clock impetus for Damon’s Max, who is diagnosed with five days to live following his Dr. Manhattan-esque accident. While this does mean we’re treated to some very gritty fight sequences, it does steer the film into very blunt territory, which it never quite manages to escape from.
The film’s political message is surprisingly less overt than that of District 9, but in almost every other department, Elysium squanders subtlety in favour of big, bold moves, which unfortunately isn’t always to its benefit. There are some truly outstanding concepts fuelling the film, and Blomkamp is clearly a man who knows a meaty plotline when he sees one. But here, it’s a case of too many flavours clashing awkwardly, and all these promising ideas soon churn into a mess. Not enough time is devoted to some of the major relationships at the heart of the film, and several of the set-pieces blur past in disorienting fashion. (At one moment it took me a few minutes to realise someone’s face had just been blown off.)
Damon is a robust choice for the protagonist, but Max is something of an anonymous creation, with on-the-nose flashbacks doing little to flesh him out beyond the stock “underdog” hero. As Kruger, Copley is thoroughly menacing, and he gets to relish some very believable moments of badassery. It’s a shame, then, that he’s lumbered with several by-the-numbers villain moments (such as a very forced scene wherein he emphasises his sexual dominance – ugh), and his exaggerated accent walks a tightrope between chilling and amusing. Shockingly, Jodie Foster fails to deliver the goods as the ice-queen Delacourt, instead trading in some clumsy line deliveries, and never fully settling on a single accent for her character.
It was going to take a lot to top District 9, but even outside of such a looming shadow, Elysium stands as another disappointment in this year’s clutch of blockbusters. For all its bite and bluster, its failure to adequately settle on any of its given topics makes it a strangely empty creation. That being said, it gains bonus points for giving us a line for the ages. At the sight of a face mutilated beyond belief, a gravelly South African mercenary grins to his cohort, “he looks pretty fucked up, mate!” The priceless power of the understatement. Apparently, Blomkamp’s next feature-length – entitled Chappie – will have deeper roots in comedy. With material like this, it could suit him nicely.
A plethora of great ideas which sadly don’t gel, instead forming a hodgepodge of blood, sweat and decimated metal. One has to admire Blomkamp’s ambition (and his keen eye for arresting visuals), but his second effort is a big step down when it comes to finesse.
Posted on August 22, 2013, in The Film World and tagged Alice Braga, District 9, Elysium, Film Review, Jodie Foster, Matt Damon, Max Da Costa, Neill Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley, Syd Mead, TriStar Pictures. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.