Elysium might not be the smoothest piece of blockbuster storytelling to hit screens this summer, but at least it’s made by a filmmaker who wants to say something with his few $100 million worth of mass destruction.
For anyone who enjoyed Neill Blomkamp’s rather brilliant genre-hopping apartheid bug-eyed sci-fi monster flick District 9, his follow up Elysium has been one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer. In an age when blockbusters must come along with an established brand name to get the required budgets, here was a movie that promised to add originality and maybe even a little social commentary to a massive popcorn flick. The good news is that Blomkamp confirms himself to be a major technical talent with a taste for subtext. The bad news is that Elysium can’t quite live up to the standard set by his debut. Ah well, the film is still one of the better blockbusters of the season and as far as sophomore slumps go, Blomkamp could have done so much worse.
The Elysium of the title is a giant silver space station in the sky where all the rich and beautiful humans live amidst clean air, pretty mansions, stacks of cash, and medical beds that can instantly cure any illness. Back on earth, everyone else lives in filthy, shantytown squalor, with terrible medical service and abusive robot cops. Ok, so the message isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s at least visualized beautifully. Our hero is Matt Damon, a former criminal who is just trying to live a quiet life as a factory worker until abusive work conditions leave him with a one-week life expectancy. Understandably peeved, Damon cuts a deal with his former buddy and crime lord Spider (Wagner Moura) who will smuggle him into Elysium in exchange for one last job. The job involves high jacking information from a wealthy businessman’s (William Fichtner) computer-enhanced brain. Damon agrees and is fitted up with a super-powered exoskeleton to complete the task. The only trouble is that Fichtner has some sensitive info locked in that brain that makes him a target for Jodi Foster’s head of Elysium security and her psychopathic ground-level associate played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley. So now, Damon is stuck in the middle of an action movie and even has an idyllic former childhood girlfriend (City Of God’s Alice Braga) with a sick daughter he can save as well. And with that, bring on the heroism and explosions!
Where Elysium succeeds best is as a blockbuster adventure. Blomkamp is something of a CGI wizard who creates a thoroughly evocative, yet grounded world. Stretching the budget for all it’s worth, he’s created a world easy to get lost in and filled it with amusing diversions (especially when Damon’s parole officer turns out to be a graffiti covered mannequin robot that asks, “would you like to speak to a human?”). He never overindulges beauty shots that linger on the design, instead letting the atmosphere slip in through the background as he focuses on a rip-roaring revenge/action narrative. The haves/have not divide at the centre of the tale is a message worth slipping into the type of multiplex fodder that plays to the “not” side of our equation, but sadly much like in District 9 the filmmaker never stretches beyond broad message making. There’s no specific message explored here that hasn’t been told a thousand times over. Granted, this is a fable and fables aren’t always known for their originality, but it’s a shame given all of the meaty potential in the set-up that the pay-off ends up being so simplistic. In particular, this becomes an issue while barreling towards the explosive climax when massive leaps in logic and convenient plot devices turn the tale from clever to rather obvious. Sill those explosions are pretty and the film never loses sight of its primary goal of entertainment in favor of pat message making, so that’s something.
The cast is primarily quite strong within the polemics and shootouts. Matt Damon matured into an impressive action star over the Bourne movies, mixing matinee idol looks skull-cracking physicality, and genuine acting chops with ease. As always, there’s something uncomfortable about watching scruffy lower class hero played by a multimillionaire star, but I suppose you need someone with that kind of box office draw on a film of this scale. William Fichtner, Wagner Moura, and Diego Luna are all cast to type and deliver as expected just like the quality character actors they are. The real scene-stealer is Sharlto Copley who has no problem transitioning from the geeky action comedy star of District 9 into the sadistic madman he plays here and delightfully chews through enough scenery to emerge as the finest villain of the summer movie season. The weak links in this boys club are sadly the two actresses with Alice Braga hampered by a weakly written damsel-in-distress role and Jodi Foster shoved so far out of her depth as an ice queen with a muddled South African accent that the Oscar-winner starts delivering lines like the second coming of William Shatner. A Razzie nomination is all but guaranteed for what has to be the worst performance in the actress’ otherwise stellar career.
That mix of consistent brilliance with moments of mediocrity and trash in the cast pretty well sums up the quality of the film as a whole. Blomkamp pulls off some remarkable spectacle and at least inserts a social message along the way, but Elysium never quite hits the epic sci-fi masterpiece mark that the director craves. He’s still made one hell of a blockbuster that’s more than worth seeing as the summer movie season wraps up; it’s just not quite the movie that it wants to be or needs to be. Ah well, after a fairly disappointing round of blockbusters I suppose it’s appropriate that the last big boy of the season should be solid, yet muddled. That’s what this summer was all about. On the plus side, Blomkamp has proven himself to be a major talent, and since this was the first time working with a studio without Peter Jackson to shield him from producer pressure, it’s safe to assume some of the more conventional arcs and neutered politics came along with playing the Hollywood game. That’s just how it goes in La-La-land and hopefully Neill Blomkamp’s next film we be stronger. But for now, at least he’s injected some smarts into some stunning blockbuster spectacle and the summer needed at least one movie that tried to pull off that tick.