Director: Neill Blompkamp
Writer: Neill Blompkamp
Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
Release date: August 9th, 2013
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Running time: 109 minutes
Best part: Blompkamp’s direction.
Worst part: Jodie Foster.
Imagination can be found in strange and enthralling places. In a time of shlock and awe, Hollywood needs to look at ‘foreign’ cinema to see how story, character, and heart can be masterfully injected into a movie. In 2009, a $30 million (chump change by modern blockbuster standards) South African sci-fi drama obliterated preconceptions regarding the ‘popcorn movie’, CGI’s potential, and apartheid. That movie was the surprise hit goo-fest District 9. Director Neill Blompkamp’s follow-up, Elysium, is the inferior yet entertaining big-budget pseudo-remake.
I’m not saying Elysium is a lazy and cynical sci-fi action flick. I’m simply suggesting that Blompkamp could’ve, and maybe should’ve, reached higher to justify his immense popularity. Before I piss anyone off, I’ll state my affection for this enjoyable and enterprising sci-fi smash. It’s an underrated and inventive movie unafraid to discuss major 21st century issues. This movie begins with a young boy being punished for stealing. After developing affection for a female classmate, he believes he’ll become Earth’s most important citizen. The movie then jumps several years into the future (2145, to be exact), and Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) has become the furthest possible thing from what his younger self had in mind. At this point in time, Earth has become a decayed and overpopulated mess occupied by disheartened people and expansive favelas. The wealthy few have emigrated to a giant satellite called ‘Elysium’, protected by Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Suffering police brutality whilst on parole, this skilled ex-con must adapt to the dangerous skeleton-like labyrinth of Los Angeles. Thanks to a workplace accident, a fatally concentrated exposure to radiation gives De Costa five days to live. Hunted by a creepy and vicious government agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), De Costa’s fight for survival has the potential to change Earth and Elysium for the greater good.
District 9 is essentially a powerful concoction of Independence Day and City of God. It addressed South Africa’s on-going issues with flair, potency, and panache. Elysium may not be as resonant or intriguing, but still contains many important messages and ‘f#ck yeah!’ moments. Here, Blompkamp has arguably established himself as this generation’s James Cameron. Taking on powerful stories and entertaining sci-fi action tropes, he stands above other budding sci-fi filmmakers (no offence, Joseph Kosinski). Unlike Kosinski’s Oblivion, Elysium triumphantly establishes itself when, where, and how it needed to. Thankfully, Elysium isn’t bogged down by slow pacing or a disengaging narrative. Like this year’s other sci-fi/apocalypse action flicks, Blompkamp’s film looks at humanity during a time of chaos, dystopia, and war. Unfortunately, considering the immense talent on display, Elysium doesn’t stand above 2013’s blockbuster crop. Blompkamp needed to bring originality and verve to this heavy-handed premise. This movie, if anything, proves he excels with visual composition and action-direction but should give his scripts more time to gestate. Like Cameron and George Lucas, Blomkmap’s reach exceeds his grasp during the script-writing stage. His screenwriting, though not terrible, throws too many contrivances and cheesy moments at the audience. Blompkamp’s filmmaking idiosyncrasies, however, are immensely gripping and sophisticated. This story, though blunt, is tangible and enthralling due to his purposeful yet glorious direction.
In fact, Elysium‘s greatest aspects are found in its dialogue-free moments. The movie opens with immaculate sweeping shots of Earth and Elysium. From a thematic standpoint, these scenic, vertigo inducing vistas are conclusive and thought-provoking. Blompkamp’s intention is, obviously, to draw parallels between Elysium‘s universe and our own. The stark contrast between the broken-down, ‘third-world’ Earth and pristine satellite-based ‘habitat’ is obvious yet momentous. From the first flashback onward, there are are a plethora of metaphors and symbols alluding to important events and current affairs. Discussing such issues as military/government control, the 99% vs. 1% feud, asylum seeking, equality, overpopulation, and Obama-care, Elysium is, somehow, more topical and overblown than Blompkamp’s previous works. One standout scene, in which Da Costa is confronted and beaten by robot policemen, looks into the treatment of minorities by authoritative forces. The problem, however, is that Blompkamp throws messages/conversation starters into the story without following through on them. His agenda is nowhere near as emotionally or thematically deep as it was in District 9. However, the movie’s greatest asset is Blompkamp’s attention to detail. Suited for I-MAX, his visual style is awe-inspiring and meaningful. Combing impressive practical effects with expansive yet efficiently used CGI, Elysium is a jaw-dropping and poignant sensory feast. Blompkamp also brings his affection for gore and advanced weaponry over from District 9. Featuring exploding bodies, creative action choreography, and unique technological devices (including an ailment-curing MRI scanner), Elysium may be 2013’s most imaginative big-budget movie.
“The only thing I can do to help you is leave, I promise you.” (Max (Matt Damon), Elysium).
This nostalgic yet competent fusion of 80s, 90s, and 00s sci-fi action flicks – specifically Total Recall, Blade Runner, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Children of Men – is bolstered by engaging action set-pieces. Blompkamp keeps the silliness to a minimum as the ‘junkyard meets Apple Store’ aesthetic, shaky-cam, and slo-mo push each sequence along. The shootouts and fistfights, making good use of Da Costa’s peculiar and iconic back-brace device, are thrillingly handled. Shot and edited with precision, the final set-piece becomes a sci-fi version of Mortal Kombat. Despite the explosions and lavish settings, it’s the performances that make Elysium whole. Despite Elysium‘s discomforting lack of wit and depth, the A-list actors, for the most part, elevate their archetypal characters. Able to inject magnetism and sympathy into any role, Damon becomes a likeable screen presence here. Despite his character’s abrasive personality, Damon’s physicality and compelling performance perk up the conventional role. Embodying polar-opposite characters in 2013 thanks to Elysium and Behind the Candelabra, his range and ambitiousness are commendable facets. As a desperate, lonely, and angry ex-government attack dog urgently needing a leash, Kruger is one of Elysium‘s many magnificent creations. His uncontrollable rage and psychotic tendencies liven up this earnest affair. Copley delivers another quirkily dark turn under Blompkamp’s direction. Unfortunately, Foster is under-utilised in a one dimensional and over-the-top role. It doesn’t help that the character’s villainous socio-political motivations are as bafflingly silly as her wavering accent.
Like many of 2013’s low-four-star blockbusters, Elysium has several outstanding concepts and memorable sequences. Making Blomkamp and Copley even bigger names, it pushes boundaries and showcases some talented individuals. Hopefully, Blompkamp will stay behind the camera rather than in front of the keyboard.