Reviewed by Ian Forbes
When a first-time writer/director makes a low budget movie that ends up making a lot of money and achieves critical success as well, the common effect is a studio hoping lightning will strike the same spot twice and giving that director more money for their sophomore effort. Such is the case with Neill Blomkamp, who made District 9 with a $30 million dollar production budget, which ended up raking in $115 million dollars at the domestic box office, earned 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and launched Sharlto Copley’s acting career. Now he’s back with Elysium, which has a $100 million dollar production budget, casts A-listers Matt Damon and Jodie Foster above the title, and re-teams the aspiring auteur with Copley once again. Seems like a sure bet, right? The convention wisdom is that this will end up making back the money it took to produce at the domestic box office but what has all that extra moolah and star power achieved in terms of filmmaking? Not a lot, unfortunately.
Set in 2154, the movie is a simplistic dystopian future where the upper class, or 1% if you enjoy occupying Wall Street, has fled to an Earth-orbiting, man-made space colony called Elysium. Up there, people enjoy clean air, speak English and French, and have access to medical treatment capable of curing disease, fixing broken limbs, and all sorts of magical medical badassery. Down on terra firma, cities like Los Angeles have become wildly overpopulated, the air is polluted (what’s new?), people speak English and Spanish, and disease and sickness run rampant.
Only qualified Elysium citizens are allowed to reap the benefits of its technology and so illegal immigrants continue to attempt entry via unauthorized shuttle launches. Jodie Foster plays the Defense Secretary of the colony, not hesitating to use lethal action to keep the riff raff outside their borders. (This movie is anything but subtle in its approach.) Matt Damon plays a parolee trying to get his life back on track but an accident at work leaves him with only a short time to live and forces him to try to reach Elysium in order to utilize their medical facilities. Oh, and his childhood love (Alice Braga) has just re-entered his life and has a daughter with leukemia who also needs immediate care in order to survive. Isn’t that just special? (And convenient.)
From a visual standpoint, the movie excels. The look of the Elysium colony is bright and beautiful (with a markedly non-Hispanic population), providing a stark contrast to the dusty, dirty slums where the (largely Hispanic) population struggles to eke out a living. And this is where things begin to go awry. District 9 wasn’t too subtle about its allegorical connection to Apartheid but by making it a human versus alien story, it did present the genocidal practice in a different light. Here, there’s no adaptation of the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, it’s simply gussied up with science fiction by making border crossing reliant on a spacecraft rather than the ability to navigate rivers, deserts, and/or fences.
The script continues on auto-pilot in its casual addition of Foster wanting to stage a coup so she can gain ultimate authority on Elysium, painting William Fichtner as the rich, white owner of the company where Damon is injured, and using Earth-based mercenaries (led by Copley) to protect the interests of the elite. The messages of the film aren’t really being delivered through dialogue on-screen, they’re administered in a series of hammers to the audiences’ heads.
Compounding this problem is Blomkamp’s reliance on using shaky-camera work for every fight. The use of this technique in films has far exceeded its welcome, especially because only a select handful of directors are able to do it well. Here, it’s frustratingly executed and cheapens potentially good action scenes. There are a few good special effects along the way, most notably a energy blast shield Copley uses a few times and some advanced weaponry used by both sides of the conflict, but these added features aren’t enough to off-set the occasional difficulty in keeping your eyes from going cross when trying to stop the on-screen seizures.
There’s a decent amount of promise in Elysium and I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy it on some level. In fact, I quite liked Fichtner’s far too brief appearance and enjoyed everything to do with Copley’s performance. It’s just too bad that the depiction of this psychotic mercenary ended up being slightly more comical than intimidating and seemed like it came from a completely different film than the rest of the proceedings. More significant to the story’s failings are too many complex issues that get short shrift while the movie tries to present itself as meaningful social commentary. While I can understand the appeal of seeing something like this on the big screen, I consider this to be a step back for Blomkamp and hope that his upcoming Chappie will be better executed. It’s also based on one of his short films (Tetra Vaal); District 9 was based on Alive in Joburg. Maybe going back to adaptations rather than writing up a feature from scratch will net better results.
Elysium opens in theaters on August 9, 2013 and is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.
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