Elysium (2013) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody violence and language throughout
Running time: 109 min.
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Review published August 10, 2013
'Elysium' is what the Ancient Greeks would call the heaven-like afterlife that their heroes that were in favor with the gods would go after death to live in an paradise of trouble-free ease and comfort. In this film, this name is given to the massive wheel-shaped, off-world space station, where the rich and powerful can go in order to live their own lives where their every whim is cared for, and every malady is cured. Meanwhile, the have-nots are stuck on a ghetto-ized Earth where poverty, illness and poor working conditions are a basic fact of life.
Elysium is set in the year 2154, and much of what we see takes place in a futuristic Los Angeles (modern-day Mexico City substitutes) that truly has become a melting pot of mostly Hispanic and some White population, though one in which squalor runs rampant. The government is mostly enforced though unfeeling robots, who are programmed to police the streets and dispense with drugs to keep their populace in check. Meanwhile, on the man-made satellite known as Elysium, expansive mansions exist for all of its well-to-do inhabitants, though what makes those on Earth strive toward illegal immigration there isn't the promise of a new job or new life, but for the use of their technology, specifically the hi-tech chambers that will eradicate diseases (including cancer) from anyone with "citizenship".
Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau, True Grit) stars as a former felon named Max Da Costa, who works as a factory worker. Because he's employed in a world filled with people begging for every nickel, he's one of the lucky ones, they say. However, the working conditions are poor, enough to result in an accident that ends up bombarding Max with radiation, giving him merely days to live in an increasingly degenerative state of internal poisoning. Max's only chance for survival is on Elysium, and he'll do anything to get there for a chance at one of the med-bay chambers, which makes him strike a hard bargain with his former boss who is the head of a network of tech-head criminals for a shuttle to the off-world colony. But the hard-hearted defense secretary Delacourt (Foster, The Brave One) has a zero-tolerance anti-immigration policy (you try to fly to Elysium, they will kill you), as well as a no-fly zone for Los Angeles unless Max is caught for stealing valuable information that could be the key to bringing Elysium down.
Movie fans have been eagerly anticipating the follow-up film from Neill Blomkamp, who knocked it out of the park with his debut effort, District 9, an anti-apartheid parable which would go on to earn an Academy Award for Best Picture. Elysium contains many echoes of that work, from its segregated society of haves and have-nots, its futuristic weaponry and vehicles, its wacked-out, almost surreal mayhem, and its ultra-bright, washed-out cinematography. He enjoys a bigger budget, a box office star in Matt Damon, a quality cast of supporting thespians -- all signs would point to one of the best films of the year.
Alas, while it's definitely not bad enough to consider it a sophomore jinx, Elysium ends up being a modestly intriguing disappointment, but only because expectations for a breakthrough science fiction actioner had been riding high. What's really missing that made District 9 so enjoyable is that deliciously irreverent tone of satire. Elysium still has crazy ideas, but it's just not fun, and for long stretches, it even dabbles in being noisy and repugnant. Not enough to ruin the film, but enough to make it feel leaden and unexciting. And perhaps worst of all, Blomkamp goes for emotional moments that fall flat on their face, drawing out melancholy slow motion shots and sweeping score meant to evoke heartbreak that rings hollow; it's an emotional punch that never connects.
The futuristic look of the film is one of its biggest assets, as Blomkamp, working again with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, gives Elysium a grand feel, with sweeping shots over the overpopulated cities, and a certain grandeur in seeing flying ships kick up dust and debris as they land or take off. The shots of Elysium are equally breathtaking, and give the film a very wide-open feel. However, Blomkamp does cut quite an overly busy film, and does overuse shaky camera techniques and close-ups in a way that detracts from the overall mood of some important scenes. In a film like District 9, the use of amateur camera work fit better, given that it was meant to be shot with handheld cameras recording the events. Here, there's really no use for it other than to try to give the feel of action and energy, but moments of respite are few and far between. There's just too much going on for the poignancy of the story to sink in.
Despite the upgrade to Oscar-caliber actors, Elysium isn't a particularly good actor's showcase. Most everyone is fine, though, in their roles, with Damon doing much of the strong, silent assassin thing he did so well in the Bourne movies. Foster is used mostly for her stern presence, though she inflects her words in a nondescript accent that does give the appearance of her voice being overdubbed at times, though it isn't. If there is a detraction in the acting category, it comes through the two characters given carte blanche to go loud and over the top. Sharlto Copley (The A-Team, Europa Report) is menacing but not very fun or interesting to watch as Kruger, the psychotic thug sent by the powers-that-be to execute whomever is thinking of threatening Elysium's idyllic existence. His thick accent makes the South African difficult to understand as he shouts his lines at the top of his lungs, usually while gunfire and explosions are around him to make him even more unintelligible. Meanwhile, on the other side of the battle, Wagner Moura (Elite Squad The Enemy Within, VIPs) is unappealingly brash and obnoxious as Spider, the head of the underground movement to get the "keys to the kingdom" and break the wall of disparity that exists between the have and have-nots.
For getting his film in at under two hours, Blomkamp should be applauded. However, it's not a tight plot, and it begs more questions about its world than it answers. Conceptually, Blomkamp seems to have it together, but rather than give us more details about this fascinating dystopia he has envisioned, or even more character details about our hero other than he was a criminal, and he was once an orphan kid who had an influential 'grandmother' and a crush on his friend Frey, whom we meet as an adult (Braga, On the Road) as a nurse who administers medical care to Max, there's not much there in terms of the depth of his character to make us care, no matter how many times we see him running in slow motion as a child. In place of the much needed character development, we get a few crazy action pieces that are brilliantly put together visually, but generate little excitement, primarily because we care more about learning about Elysium and Earth. When action scenes feel like a pause in viewer interest, something has gone wrong; the balance is off.
Nevertheless, Blomkamp delves into some interesting ideas rooted in relevant "class warfare" social commentary on our current society in which the 1% is able to enjoy all of the creature comforts in life, including the best in medical care, while the remaining 99% must toil and slave, and at the end of the day, have little to show for it but to wake up the next day to do it all over again. It's also about immigration, and how those who live in impoverished countries would risk life and limb to get themselves into a country where they seemingly have everything, not because they are better, but simply, because they are citizens.
Elysium has plenty to admire, mostly from a conceptual and technical vantage point, to sate science fiction fans, and perhaps a few action lovers who like high concept fare. If that means you, it gets a recommendation, though with some reservations to not expect something along the lines of District 9 in quality and vision. While I'm an admirer of Blomkamp's vision for Elysium as well, there are too many concepts that are given short shrift, as action scenes take the place of much needed expository information that would give these heady ideas the resonance they need to take root. Too much weight and not enough movement, Elysium is a socio-politically high-minded, occasionally erudite slog to an ending that few will find satisfying.
©2013 Vince Leo