'Elysium' 2013 movie review: Lateral move for 'District 9' director Neill Blomkamp
If Elysium were South African director Neill Blomkamp's debut feature film, it would have been hailed as a superior work of speculative fiction, shot through with au courant references to illegal immigration and class disparity. Unfortunately, Elysium is Blomkamp's eagerly awaited second feature, the follow-up to his accomplished sci-fi parable District 9. That 2009 film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, an honor it partly earned by proving that a memorable, profitable summer blockbuster can be had for the rock-bottom price of $30 million.
Four years and about $100 million later comes Elysium, the film that would hopefully cement Blomkamp's reputation as a master amalgamator of high-octane thrills and topical themes. Such lofty expectations are hard to meet, and when weighed against what came before, Elysium is, at best, a lateral move. It confirms Blomkamp's visual gifts and laudable interest in futuristic allegories about Earth's haves and have-nots. But chief among its problems is that it expands on the one aspect of District 9 that didn't quite work: its eventual descent into nonstop metal-gear action.
In Elysium, the final reels succumb to dizzying amounts of running, fighting, and shouting, which only distract Blomkamp from focusing on character, especially Max (Matt Damon), the poor assembly-line worker turned reluctant savior. It's what happens when a budding mainstream auteurist fails to find the right balance between his commercial and non-commercial instincts. And yet, given the empty calories of this season's nine-figure megabombs, Elysium has much to offer as a futuristic sociopolitical adventure.
'Elysium': Los Angeles-set sci-fi tale addressing local sociopolitical issues
Neill Blomkamp naturally chose Johannesburg for District 9's tale of alien apartheid, and for his take on illegal immigration he has wisely chosen Los Angeles. (If his intent is to cross the globe creating sci-fi tales that use local issues to address worldwide problems, he'll create quite a distinctive body of work.) In Elysium, Blomkamp and ace production designer Philip Ivey vividly display the squalor of Los Angeles in 2154, where millions of destitute 99- percenters live in polluted, favela-like conditions. The inhabitants eke out a Mad Max existence of hopeless poverty and barely adequate medical services provided by overcrowded, rundown hospitals.
Orbiting Earth many miles above is a constant reminder of a better life: Elysium is a sleek, pristine, circular space station where humanity's elite live in utopian surroundings, and ubiquitous high-tech medpods cure all diseases and heal all wounds in seconds. On Earth, it is the sufferer's dream to make it to Elysium, and residents who scrape together enough money can book passage on a supersonic refugee ship and attempt to steal a few precious seconds in a medpod.
The bald and tattooed Max is desperate for a medpod after receiving a lethal dose of radiation while making a repair at Armadyne, the corporation responsible for Elysium. Given five days to live, he makes a deal with Spider (Elite Squad's Wagner Moura), an underworld kingpin who agrees to smuggle Max to the station if he successfully steals valuable information from the brain of oily Armadyne topper, Carlyle (William Fichtner).
Much will be made of Elysium's socialist bent and while that might risk alienating certain audiences, it's downright thrilling that a big-budget film would take any political position. That said, the movie doesn't argue in favor of open borders and universal health care, so much as it takes those issues as far as they'll go and wraps them in conventional, Saturday matinee clothing. Indeed, Elysium is more ideologically aware than it is ideologically astute, yet Neill Blomkamp is still being much more politically daring here than in District 9. That film dramatized a universally recognized injustice, whereas North American distributor Tri-Star can pretty much write off a good segment of potential Elysium ticket-buyers, namely the anti-immigration and pro-border control crowd.
'Elysium': Contemporary parallels and class warfare
Neill Blomkamp, who also wrote Elysium, pushes the contemporary parallels right to the edge of being ham-fisted. The station's shoot-to-kill defensive systems are under the command of Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who refers to the Spanish-fluent refugees attempting to breach Elysium as “immigrants.” The poor clamoring for access to the medpods installed in every Elysium home essentially constitute the rich being asked to pay for everyone else's health care. And that's not an unreasonable idea given conditions on terra firma so inadequate that after Max gets beaten up by the cops on his way to work, he's evaluated by a comically indifferent, robot caregiver. By the time Max enters Elysium with his gun-toting cohorts, class warfare doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
As with District 9, Blomkamp seamlessly blends practical locations and CGI to create authentic-looking environments. Had he put an equal amount of effort into the characters, all that socialist rabble-rousing might have really hit home. Matt Damon, with his squat, youthful, Working Joe appearance, would seem a reasonable Everyman for Blomkamp's purposes. But when Max's deteriorating condition forces Spider to outfit him with a battle-ready exo-skeleton, he becomes just another summertime superhero up against a ticking time bomb.
Blomkamp tries to humanize Max by giving him a childhood friend: Frey (Alice Braga) grew up with Max in a Catholic orphanage and now her leukemia-stricken daughter is in dire need of a medpod. Frey, however, is never convincingly integrated into the story and isn't really even necessary since it's her daughter who best represents Max's potential transition from self-serving commoner to social liberator.
Blomkamp's failure to maintain emotional investment in our hero is as troublesome as his failure to create intelligent heavies. If Delacourt has any serious justification for being so violently absolutist in her anti-immigrant views, we don't hear it. That might betray the director's personal views, but it also reveals his deficiencies as a dramatist, one who can't manufacture a compelling rationale for the actions of his villain – one is reminded of Burt Lancaster's treasonous general in John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May, whose argument was so persuasive you found yourself rooting for the overthrow of the American government.
Even more over the top is Delacourt's man in Havana, the bearded, South African-accented Krueger (a seething Sharlto Copley, so memorable as the tragic hero of District 9). Stationed on Earth by Delacourt to intercept troublemakers, Krueger becomes so sadistically unhinged in his pursuit of Max that his chief purpose in Elysium seems to be to guarantee its R rating.
'Elysium': Neill Blomkamp's tricky sophomore effort
Sophomore efforts are tricky when you're a director of promise working in an era of bland, risk-free studio moviemaking. Audiences clamoring for a new and exciting voice are loath to rescind their goodwill. Duncan Jones (Moon), for one, got a pass for Source Code, a film so confusing the dialogue might as well have been delivered in Urdu.
Elysium's detractors will be disappointed the film isn't an improvement over District 9, while its partisans will be forced to admit there are holes in Blomkamp's game. Either way, his second feature film is confident, exciting, and occasionally thoughtful – one of the better entries in a summer filled with inferior, impersonal product. Next time, Neill Blomkamp should remember that it's not enough to have a provocative set-up and then trade it in for explosions and gunplay.
Elysium (2013). Director and Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp. Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Diego Luna, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Trambley, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, Adrian Holmes, Jared Keeso, Carly Pope.
Jodie Foster Elysium photo: Tri-Star.
Matt Damon Elysium photo: Tri-Star.