A Film Review of Elysium
By: Lawrence Napoli
Neil Blomkamp, the writer/director from South Africa that created District 9 follows up with his second foray into spearheading a special F/X, Hollywood production with Elysium. The lead-up to this film certainly had me very excited in that it was a brand new idea that blended sci-fi and action while seeming to have a solid cast in addition to making some worthwhile social commentary all at the same time. This would definitely be my kind of movie, but at the same time seemed like an all too familiar experience from District 9. That film didn’t exactly resonate with the global masses mostly due to its lack of action for the majority of the film, and it seems that Elysium was made specifically to address that issue. As a matter of fact, there are so many similarities between these films in regards to plot and theme that I wonder if this film was simply a make-up for District 9’s deficiencies. This summer has been very average in terms of the blockbusters we’ve all seen and/or heard about, and as much as I wanted Elysium to be the best, it simply did not deliver that summer fun, impactful glee represented by 2012’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.
Elysium is a very good looking film. Set design, CG settings and costumes were extremely well done to create a very convincing portrayal of what Earth would be like in 2154. The setting where most of the movie takes place depicts an arid, desert-like environment that bottle necks the populace into dense slums similar to the Brazilian “favellas” we saw in Fast Five. Everyone and everything looks dusty and dirty and every step the viewer takes with the cast from the slums to the industrial sector screams “poverty” at every turn. All of these visual elements contrast beautifully with the pristine, tech-plasticity of everything and everyone on the space station known as Elysium. The color palate is strictly whites, blacks and metallic grays (with a little green for the fake grass they show in the residential areas). Everyone looks like they were just in a business meeting or exiting an Abercrombie & Fitch, and everyone has had plastic surgery. Elysium is disgustingly pretty, and the fact that these visuals are constantly colliding allows the audience a chance to really get into this fictional world in order to appreciate this futuristic reality of the “haves” versus the “have-nots.”
Elysium also demonstrates some fairly impressive visual and CG effects throughout that pays off with satisfaction during action sequences. I was particularly impressed with the fidelity of the robots used throughout this film in that their rudimentary design seemed practical and realistic enough to be within the grasp of current technology while their interaction with people in the environment seemed as real as someone wearing a robot suit on set. I also enjoyed the gunplay in this film which depicts slightly advanced ballistics on the planet, but then graduates to more laser/plasma ferocity on the space station. My one complaint is in regards to the hand to hand combat which is neither aesthetically pleasing, nor competently captured by the camera for the audience to appreciate. I understand that our combatants are wearing exo-skeleton suits that wouldn’t allow them a ballet-like fluidity to their punches and kicks, but the use of hand-held camera work to capture these moments makes it seems much faster than it really is and the audience misses a lot. This continues to be a standard Hollywood strategy that allows the cinematographer to cheat by pushing the frame as close as possible to the action and then shaking it incessantly so our eyes can’t catch up to what probably is uninspired fight choreography or shoddy execution. If you want to shoot action, then make sure the real work gets put in before deciding on angles and when the camera rolls.
As I mentioned before, the story of Elysium is very similar to the overall message and tone of the futuristic dystopia of District 9: the poor get poorer, the rich get richer, everything and everyone is exploitable for someone else, there’s no real sense of community or family and the concept of surviving requires feral desperation, despite the evolution of technology. All of this is well and good (and has been done by just about every sci-fi film ever), but Elysium really tries to focus on the class conflict and how it directly relates to the fragility and mortality of the human body. Our hero Max (Matt Damon) is set on a frantic path to the space station as the only way to save his own skin, but while doing so presents an opportunity for the rest of the planet to share in the rewards. Max, however, is not the most sympathetic character conceived on paper and when moments arise for him to think of others before himself, he always takes the selfish route. It’s difficult to cheer for this kind of character because his circumstances do not appear to realistically burden his journey; he simply demonstrates no interest. Eventually, Max’s character arc brings him around to redemption, but the value of his journey exposes a reality that may be true today: disease, famine and poverty will never be dealt with because they exist as an all-purpose means of controlling the majority of the species. The themes of the script are much more meaningful than the characters or the rather pedestrian plot. In my opinion, the rich context does not compensate for this story’s lack of charm and complexity.
If the characters weren’t particularly interesting, the performances didn’t do much more to vitalize them. It begins and ends with Matt Damon as Max. His strongest moments are his glib interactions with robots that are quite comical, yet fairly rare. His biggest weakness is the flaccid “romance” he shares with Alice Braga as Frey who is not demeaned as the token babe in your generic action/sci-fi flick, but whose subplot does little to enhance the development of the overall story. Damon puts forth a capable performance, but is clearly miles away from the Bourne Trilogy and light years away from Good Will Hunting. Even when his character is endowed with the exo-suit, he never really cuts loose to kick ass until the climactic battle which is quite satisfying, by the way, and a clear cut above every action sequence prior to in this film. Whatever emotional angle Damon was playing at needed more with the exception of desperation, of which there was plenty, but I need more than that to connect with a character.
And speaking of “lacking;” how about Jodie Foster’s return to big budget films? Playing Defense Minister Delacourt, she is the true antagonist of the movie by conspiring to gain total control of the space station, but her character’s lack of control and inability to intimidate severely limits her villainy. I also found whatever accent she was attempting to be annoying and inconsistent as she breaks frequently to her natural speaking voice and it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps her natural talk is too low-brow for a citizen of Elysium, but that just means someone else should have been cast in the first place.
The best performance, by far, was that of Sharlto Copley whom you’ll remember as Murdock from The A-Team and the lead in District 9. His character, Kruger, is the real threat to the hero in this film, and he is easily the best villain of the summer thanks to his brazen malevolence and mental instability. You might think that it is easy for an actor to sell “evil” when it is framed within “crazy,” but Jim Carey and Tommy Lee Jones both proved in Batman Forever that “crazy” can fall flat on its face. Copley and his natural eccentricity electrifies Kruger as a defiant nihilist that lives for violence and somehow gets the job done despite a fleeting ability to focus and his only motivations being “just ‘cause” and “why not?” Sure, Kruger is about one level higher than a caveman, but his unpredictability is actually a welcome element of chaos amidst the well ordered society of Elysium and its well orchestrated control of the planet below.
Elysium is not the best film of the summer, and I really thought that it would be. A weak main character combined with a poor man’s Metropolis plot doesn’t match the proficiency of its thematic tone, visual style or exceptional villain. This is not quite the “thinking person’s” film that District 9 was, nor is it as accessible as something like Olympus Has Fallen which is about as standard issue as action films get. There’s simply not enough intrigue to label this as a must see in theatres, but it’s definitely worth checking out at your earliest convenience on Netflix. I’m glad director Blomkamp didn’t sell out by making a shamelessly unnecessary 3D port of his film, but please viewers, don’t get tempted by the allure of the IMAX screen. If your weekend isn’t already spoken for children thanks to Planes and you really need something to do, don’t pay more than a regular admission for Elysium.