“Elysium” ** 1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, and Diego Luna
Written and Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
It was becoming clear to me after seeing “The Wolverine” that 2013 is not a good year for really, really good studio blockbusters. After being spoiled with the summer of 2012, it stands to reason that a letdown was in order this year. “Elysium”, the second effort from “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp, cements this summer’s film output as mediocre to disappointing at best. Even with a very talented group of people in front of and behind the camera, “Elysium” just isn’t as groundbreaking or meaningful as it should be. It’s a beautifully shot, frantic, violent, and unfortunately jumbled film somehow made dull by the ‘smartest people in the room’.
Anyone who has seen “District 9” knows how politically charged it is, with sweeping themes of classism and racism. As heavy-handed as it is, I would have been inclined to dismiss it out of hand. However, Neill Blomkamp is a native of South Africa. He’s lived through tumultuous times (albeit as a youngster) in that very part of the world; I thought it lent credence to his sermon of a film.
I couldn’t help but keep those facts in mind the first time I read the plot summary for “Elysium”. The title even gave me a hint of what was to come; ‘elysium’ was a term in ancient times given to a place, like Heaven, that was “reserved by gods for the favored heroes”, or a “place or state of perfect happiness”. I sensed (correctly) that Blomkamp would bring audiences another morality play masquerading as a science fiction film. Generally, that’s what makes the best science fiction; ‘Star Trek’ is famous in part for mirroring our current society’s issues through the interactions with other intergalactic beings. We have other literary examples of this through Richard Matheson, Isaac Asimov, and Philip Dick, to name a few.
I believe Blomkamp and company were on the right track, just like the aforementioned authors, but there’s one thing that separates this story and its’ notorious villains from better science fiction: ambiguity. There is none. Jodie Foster’s character, a ruthless defense secretary, shows only one motivation- keeping illegals out of Elysium. Sharlto Copley’s psychotic agent/bounty hunter and his pals simply live for the thrill of the hunt. William Fichtner’s devious character doesn’t think twice about his company’s liability after a serious workplace incident. These are all characters without remorse, conscience, and seemingly without reason. It leads me to wonder how they got that way, and why society has made the choice to separate their physical and moral selves from planet Earth and the rest of humanity. To be honest, that’s far more interesting movie to me than the black and white way this film presents the division of power.
We clearly understand the motivations of every earthbound citizen in this film. Earth sucks, robot police and parole officers can’t sense sarcasm, no one can get decent healthcare, and to boot, everyone on the orbiting space station Elysium lives disease-free thanks to special medical pods. They have it all ‘up there’, we don’t ‘down here’, and that’s life. So, everyone on Earth spends their time risking their lives trying to somehow sneak onto the Wheel In The Sky. (I hoped, at some point, there would be a random reference to the Journey song, but alas, no)
I cannot wholly dismiss the film, for the performances are top-notch, especially Sharlto Copley. I cannot appropriately convey how immensely talented he is, and I hope he one day holds a golden statue as a result. Matt Damon, as likable as he is, does well as the hoodlum-turned-productive citizen-turned soldier Max. Jodie Foster delivers another economical, if not memorable performance, and even manages to keep her odd French accent from being too distracting. It also bears mentioning that the film looks absolutely breathtaking. WETA continues their dominance as the go-to effects shop in my mind.
That being the case, “Elysium” is just not the satisfying film it should be. Blomkamp showed an economy to his story in “District 9”, an intelligence that’s lacking this time around, especially in the last third of the film. In him, I had sensed a rebellious director, eager to merge the intelligence of classic sci-fi principles with the broad capabilities of today’s movie technology. With “Elysium”, I sensed a director who got the big budget and wasn’t forced to economize his thoughts. His talent is undeniable, and I have a sneaking suspicion that his next film will be more focused and rich, hopefully while being less frenetic and explosion-happy. Instead of the engrossing and smart journey to Elysium that we should have, befitting the effort it took to get there, we’re treated simply to a shoot ’em up where the gore and violence wins. It just doesn’t seem right; it’s a purpose film, perhaps alluding to the disparity between medical technology and affordability in our world, but sorely lacking in purpose. If you want a ‘splosion film that’s smarter than “Transformers”, “Elysium” might be great for you; however, as a parable for today’s society, it’s not nearly as enriching and satisfying as it should be.