Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review - Elysium

Neil Blomkamp follows up his auspicious debut District 9 with Elysium, a science-fiction that's just as violent and icky as his first feature but without the deftness of story or subtext to justify it.
150 years in the future, Earth has deteriorated into a cesspool of disease and poverty. The wealthy 1% jumped ship long ago by inhabiting a glorious space station – Elysium – with all the pristine comforts money can buy; including magic medicare machines that can instantly cure any ailment. Just like that! Desperate immigrants from Earth are eager to jump aboard illegal shuttle flights to the orbiting utopia, much to the chagrin of its steely defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who would sooner eschew the rulebook and blast everything within 100 miles of her precious paradise than allow one disease-riddled earthling to set foot on it.

There's one diseased earthling she's particularly concerned about; Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a petty criminal outfitted with a bulky but powerful mechanical exoskeleton, who took one last heist job in order to buy his way up to Elysium. What Max doesn't know is that what he's stolen is valuable computer code that can override the space station's political administration... because, y'know, if a computer says the president's not the president, it must be so, right?

Intent on retrieving this confusing McGuffin, Delacourt charges maniacal sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copely playing a much less likable version of his 'Howling Mad' Murdoch from The A-Team) with hunting down Max, who's gotten a bit preoccupied trying to protect his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga) and her terminally ill daughter.
The apparently common critical opinion that Elysium is heavy-handed and over-the-top is somewhat true as it turns out, but that's far from the film's most severe problems. The resonance of its message propagating universal health care (an cause one would hope it should be hard to argue against) is not cheapened all that much by the bluntness with which it's delivered. It certainly reminds me how lucky I am to live in a country with socialized medicine, but Blomkamp needn't have used a sledgehammer to convince me of that.

I'd feel cruel about chastising a summer blockbuster for daring to make a social commentary on pertinent issues, but worthwhile message or no worthwhile message, the writing just isn't very good. Blomkamp's willingness to exploit a woman and child in peril for as long as he does suggests a sorry lack of creativity in the story department, and a lack of faith in his characters to maintain our attention.

He's right about that: these characters didn't interest me at all. There are few things as uncomfortable as watching fine actors struggling with shallow material. Be it Foster's conspicuously affected line readings or the unbearable ham-handedness of supporting players Copley and Wagner Moura, none of the performances in Elysium convinced or captivated me.
Far more engaging is the look of the film. Philip Ivey's production design slickly evokes the futuristic sterility of Elysium, and the detailed squalor of Earth is no less striking. As a world-building exercise, there's lots for the wandering eye to explore in every frame.

** out of ****


  1. Blomkamp is a filmmaker that people either love or hate. I know lots of people who loved District 9, and just as many who hated it. He's one of those filmmakers who has an acquired taste that not everyone will find delicious. I can name a couple off the top of my head who are like that too.

    With Elysium, Blomkamp made a unique story, but squandered it with lackluster writing. I suspect that the film could do well in the tech categories, such as Sound and VFX. But everywhere else, it's just as sick as 99% of the people on Earth in the movie.

    1. I'm not sure if District 9 was as divisive as you said it was...