Elysium (2013)

Neill Blomkamp did a remarkable thing when he ‘hit it outta the park’ with his first feature film, which was 2009s excellent ‘District 9’. One of the reasons that ‘D9’ resonated with audiences, especially those under the GEEK banner, was that Blomkamp seamlessly and intelligently melded relevant social commentary with a tangible, dystopian look at the future; a well-worn and overly ‘lived in’ future that, in many ways, seemed to be a logical extrapolation of the world around us today.
Apparently noting these ‘positives’ in his first flick, Blomkamp has taken a similar approach to the long-awaited and eagerly anticipated ‘Elysium’. Before I get into the ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ of his approach, it must be said that, in my lowly opinion, ‘Elysium’ is a VERY good follow-up’ to ‘District 9’…but unfortunately, not a fantastic one. All is NOT perfect…as I’m sure many out there were expecting/hoping for.
First: ‘Elysium’ takes on the concept of ‘class struggle’ and lays it on the ruined world of 2154, namely Los Angeles, California. As we are told in the opening ‘title card’, huge portions of Earth have gone to shit as a result of conflict, disease and pollution. The Weatlhy have financed a massive orbital space station named Elysium, where they continue to live out their decadent lives in blissful ignorance of the hardships that the remaining Earth population must endure. It’s in the industrial shantytown that LA has become, that we meet Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief turned assembly line worker, in a robot factory for a major defense contractor. All that he wants is to etch out a reasonable and legitimate life, having turned his back on his former larcenous ways. Due to unsafe ‘practices’ on the factory floor though, he ends up lethally radiated, with a life expectancy of about 5 days. From there, Max must delve back into his criminal past to link up with a local cyber revolutionary/crime kingpin named Spider. Spider has the inside skinny on illegal transportation to Elysium, where desperate people hope to gain access to the highly advanced medical technology…which is exactly what Max seeks. As part of their deal, Max agrees to partake in a high-tech hi-jacking/robbery. When things don’t go according to plan, he finds himself squarely in the gun sights of Elysium’s Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her psychotic henchman, Kruger (Sharlto Copely). Cue the violent race against time.
Once again, Blomkamp has done a fantastic job creating the world to set this drama in. Futuristic LA is a weary and dreary place, all dust and glare, pollution and poverty. Fascistic robot police patrol the streets in among hordes of sweaty latino gang-bangers and legions of The Poor. Graffiti adorns all the worn and battered surfaces and dusty garbage swirls around on the hot wind. Many of the settings, vehicles and weapons are taken directly from ‘today’ and it lends a sense of reference that makes the place and time believable. On the flip side, Elysium looks like a massive, beautifully-manicured park, interspersed with upper-class suburbia. Lots of white and soothing green, even in the space-age control rooms and conference halls. It’s an artificial ‘ring world’ that offers up a magnificent view of the Earth, without being close enough to get any of the misery on them. When it comes to the production design, like ‘D9’, I have zero complaints.
With regards to the cast, Blomkamp made a slick choice with Matt Damon as our protagonist. Damon brings a cocky sense of humor and charisma to the role, which is then offset with unrestrained fear as the odds continue to mount against him, especially after the cold and clinical diagnosis from the MedBot that treats him post accident. He is simply a man who doesn’t want to die, at least not in the way they’ve told him he will. Alice Braga (Predators) pops up as Frey, Max’s childhood friend and fellow orphan, to first help him…then join him on his quest, in order to get treatment on Elysium for her young daughters terminal leukemia. As the crazy-ass motherfucker Kruger, Blomkamps ‘D9’ lead, Sharlto Copely is awesome, despite how one dimensional the character is. He’s an ‘operational asset’ of Elysium whose vile personality enables him to exist on the hell that is Earth, as it offers up the opportunity to satisfy his sadistic impulses…and sometimes get paid for it. William Fichtner (Strange Days) is the owner/manager of the company that Max works for, and is in cahoots with Jodie Fosters duplicitous Secretary character, details of which kick the chase into high speed. He was a peculiar dude, with his dismissive and almost effeminate attitude and bearing, and I genuinely wanted to see more of him. Which brings me to the ‘weakest link’. I can’t believe that I have to write this, given how much I like and respect her work, but Jodie Foster didn’t really work for me. We weren’t given enough about her besides icy glares, a questionable accent and the unwillingness to be fair or compassionate. No character build-up at all. Sure, she looked great with her page-boy hair style and sexy power suits (those legs!) but in the end, Delacourt could’ve been played by anyone. Her Final Moment also did not ring true for me…something was just lacking about it…and the way ‘it’ came about.
Speaking of ‘lacking’, there is something to ‘Elysium’s ‘narrative’ that was lacking for me, especially in the 3rd Act. Coming in at 110 minutes long, the story felt like it should’ve had another 20-30 minutes to go. The pacing for the first 2 thirds worked well, but suddenly things felt jumpy and overly convenient
While we’re discussing ‘jumpy’, I need to address the action. The gunfights were great, with some very cool use of slow-mo to show shocking displays of damage and violence (Face=SPLAT!). It was when characters engaged in mortal, hand-to-hand combat that my urge to ‘face palm’ hit. Blomkamp…hold the fucking camera still! I’ve addressed this in several other reviews, and my distaste for this style of filming and editing continues to grow with each instance I’m subjected to it. For some reason, I found this one particularly annoying, probably cuz I had set my hopes pretty damn high for this flick. Half the time, I couldn’t make out who was hitting who through the loud flurry of activity bombarding the screen. Kinda pissed me off. Luckily, some new crazy future weapon would get pulled out and a human would messily detonate…and I’d suddenly be ok again (should I be worried about that?). But the fist fights just bothered me to the point where it did sink my opinion somewhat. Something that sank it even further was the convenient and (mostly) consequence-free bow that nicely tied up the story, complete with swelling emotional music and poignant slow motion. It felt too simple and lazy that this story, in this world, should end in such a final and uplifting way. Some ambiguity would’ve been most welcome, at least where I’m concerned.
Overall, ‘Elysium’ is some good, well-crafted ‘hard’ sci-fi, with something to say, and a cool canvas on which to say it. I do hope we see an Extended Cut eventually, as I think the story and characters need it, and if we do, it’ll make the lazy and annoying scenes of frantic fisticuffs, and the bloated, manipulative ending easier to swallow. ‘District 9’ is STILL Blomkamps science fiction masterpiece…but ‘Elysium’ does give the run at THAT title an honest shot.

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