"They will hunt you to the edge of the earth for this..."
Coming off of one of the most auspicious debut films of all time, District 9, director Neill Blomkamp proved that he was a director worth believing all of the hype that surrounded him. His name was first floated by Peter Jackson to direct the film version of the video game Halo, but when that project failed to take off, Blomkamp seemed to take all of his pre-production designs & ideas and pour them into his latest film Elysium. The big question now seemed to be, could Elysium stand on its own, free from the hype caused by District 9? Read on to find out...
Sometime in the late 21st century, the upper class citizens of Earth decided to abandon the planet to live on an advanced space station called Elysium. There they could live their lavish lifestyles free from the worries that come with being surrounded by the poor and criminal elements of Earth-bound society. Meanwhile on Earth, two orphaned children, Max & Frey, dream of one day traveling to Elysium, where, rumor has it, all disease has been eradicated, and people can live in utopia. Fast forward to 2154 where adult Max (Matt Damon) has become a criminal struggling to survive in an unfair world. He's reunited with Frey (Alice Braga) after an encounter with police bots leaves him with a broken arm, and she is disappointed to see him not living up to his potential.
After an accident at the plant where Max works leaves him with radiation poisoning that will kill him in five days, Max decides to make one last ditch attempt to get to Elysium and get healed. He turns to his old criminal boss Spider (Wagner Moura) to help him, and Spider gets Max to agree to what amounts to a suicide mission. When word of the plot reaches Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the woman in charge of security on Elysium, she awakens a ruthless sleeper agent on Earth named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to put an end to the plot and restore order.
The biggest and most immediate problem I had with Elysium is that it tries to do entirely too much for one film. Virtually every scene feels rushed to get to the next one so that they can cram the entire plot into 109 minutes. As a result, the film can't help but feel half baked and under-realized. Don't get me wrong, I would rather have a film that is smart and has something to say but falls short over a film that tries to achieve nothing and succeeds, but I wish they had jettisoned some of the side stories in this film and just focused things more on Max and his goal to get to Elysium.
The main side plot that ultimately served no purpose was the one involving Jodie Foster's character and her attempt to overthrow the government on Elysium. Early in the third act, this plot becomes wholly irrelevant and makes me wonder why they included it in the first place. Was it to give Foster something to do in the early scenes? Her character proved to be completely unnecessary and ultimately bogged down the whole film.
I was also bothered, to a lesser extent, by the heavy-handedness of the message behind the film. I understand the need for social commentary in a science fiction film, but this one felt a bit obvious in its messaging. It's not hard to sympathize with the sick & infirm, particularly when they are living in third class squalor, so many of the slow motion shots of crippled children felt gratuitous. I also felt almost no emotional connection to Max. Since his character is so late to the party on wanting to do the right thing, his "redemption" ended up feeling a bit hollow. I wanted the final moments of the film to be resonant and emotional, and they just weren't, ultimately leaving me a bit blah about the whole film.
If it sounds like I'm being too harsh on the film, believe me when I say there was a lot to admire here. First and foremost, this is some of the best cgi I've seen in a film. The effects work was top notch and Blomkamp's aesthetic as a director works well to mask some of the more dodgy cgi moments. There was a bit too much "shaky cam" nonsense, but it never felt unjustified and I was always able follow what was happening, there just seems to be an impulse in directors that when they focus their cameras on Matt Damon in an action sequence, they need to shake the camera as well. I also loved the lived-in feel of the world. Everything felt old and broken down, and it all worked extremely well for the story they were telling.
The parts of the story that worked best for me involved the character of Kruger. He was as cold-blooded and heartless a villain as I've ever seen in a film, and Copley's performance elevates every scene he's in. He is one of the most fascinating actors working today and I hope he continues to strive for this sort of excellence. The rest of the cast is fair to middling. Damon always manages to acquit himself of even the most mediocre material, and he can't help but infuse this character with his trademark charm. I also liked the choice that Foster made to sort of homogenize her accent and have it just be a blend of several upper class accents that fit whomever she was talking to or manipulating at a given moment, but my issues with her character extended far beyond her accent.
Overall, I can't fully recommend Elysium, except for maybe die hard science fiction fans. While it's incredible to look at and the effects work is top notch, I can't help but feel that its reach exceeded its grasp, and it tried to do entirely too much for one film. It's better than most of the summer action nonsense that pervades movie theaters at this time of year, but in a way, it almost feels like more of a cheat since its message ended up being so heavy handed and muddled that it couldn't help but feel manipulative. I really wanted to love this film, and I still look forward whatever Blomkamp does next, I just hope he moves away from poverty porn and explores new territory.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]