Expectations are a dangerous thing, and right now few people realize that as well as Neill Blomkamp. Four years after his debut film District 9 wowed audiences and critics alike he’s finally ready to unleash his follow-up, Elysium. Audiences looking to see if he can avoid a sophomore slump may also be hoping to be rescued from a fairly underwhelming summer for sci-fi/action films, so expectations are doubled.
Well, at least they’re already familiar with disappointment.
Max De Costa (Matt Damon) is an ex-con trying to keep out of trouble and stay employed, but the reality of Los Angeles in 2154 isn’t making things easy. The city’s population, much like the rest of Earth’s, consists entirely of the poor and oppressed who can barely afford basic health care and clean living conditions. Luckily they’re all pure of heart. Floating high above them, teasingly just out of reach, is the space station Elysium. Home to the wealthy and the healthy, life up there is little more than a dream for those below.
When an on the job injury leaves Max with five days to live he reluctantly returns to his criminal ways to facilitate a quick trip to Elysium and a life-saving visit to one of the station’s all powerful med beds. Standing in his way are Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her black-op henchman Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Complicating things further is the reappearance of Max’s childhood love, Frey (Alice Braga), whose leukemia-riddled daughter is also in need of medical treatment. Soon Max is being fitted for an exo-skeleton, heisting some highly sensitive data and bringing the fight to the interstellar 1% in the sky.
You don’t have to look far for what works best in Elysium because what works best is the film’s visuals. Blomkamp accomplished wonders on his first film’s relatively small budget and here he gets to play with considerably more. It’s all on the screen with finely crafted CGI creations intermingling with real people and locations, and like he did in District 9, Blomkamp makes a point of repeatedly showing just how red and pulpy people are when various parts of them explode. The big action, scenes involving shuttlecrafts, cars and gunplay, are crafted well enough and occasionally exciting, but the same can’t be said for the cramped, confusingly-edited fight scenes that often make Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films look like Donnie Yen master shots. Blomkamp fares better with his Los Angeles-turned-favela landscape that is convincing in its scope and oppressed reality, and its look goes a long way towards world building…
… before the script tears it all down again.
The setup is simple enough in its goal-oriented structure, but the weak script muddles that through a palpable sense of lazy convenience in regard to its plotting. Obstacles and rules are laid out only to be pushed aside or ignored to get a character from one scene to the next. Far from the only example, we’re showed early on with dramatic intensity how seemingly impossible it is for immigrants to reach Elysium, but later when the story dictates a character needs to be there he simply lands on the station with ease.
The script also lacks a convincing emotional element thanks in part to an excessive use of flashbacks to Max’s childhood (starring a kid who truly resembles Damon) that accomplish very little. The reunion between Max and Frey falls equally flat in its attempt to forge a hopeful connection. Dialogue fares only slightly better, but even that often veers into the strangely bad, including a threat that quickly goes from menacing to just plain dumb: “I was gonna heal your daughter, but now I’m going to make sure she’s never healed!”
And while District 9 layered in some obvious social commentary between action scenes it did so in a mostly unobtrusive way. Elysium chooses the opposite tact and instead jettisons anything even remotely resembling subtlety in an effort to conform to a caricatured liberal view of good and bad. There’s no gray area here as all of earth’s citizens are happy, nice and craving universal health care. There’s no visible crime between them, and thanks to a heavy percentage of Latinos the spoken language moves fluidly between English and Spanish. The citizens of Elysium, by contrast, are shown only as greedy and disaffected, occasionally lapsing into French while conversing at one of their never ending lawn parties or discussing the growing problem of undocumented immigrants.
Damon is fine here although he’s given little opportunity to show personality or spark, but of the rest of the cast only Copley stands out with his over the top bad guy. Foster and William Fichtner surprise with uncharacteristically forced and bland (respectively) performances. Wagner Moura meanwhile, known primarily from the Elite Squad films, channels Antonio Bandaras’ ridiculous turn in Assassins to (unintentionally) humorous effect.
It turns out Elysium isn’t the summer’s savior that some may have hoped, and worse, it’s actually a lesser film than some of this season’s other big movies that underwhelmed. But while it’s a disappointment on too many levels there is a bright side. It makes the four year wait for Blomkamp’s third film that much easier.
The Upside: Gorgeous and seamless visual effects; bloody giblets; some fun action; the Inception score still sounds good
The Downside: Obvious; heavy handed; uninteresting characters; script filled with head scratchers; some less fun action; massive logic holes in plan and resolution; Jodie Foster and William Fichtner feel wasted
On the Side: Before you jump on me for hating all of this summer’s big movies know that I loved both White House Down and 2 Guns. In retrospect this information probably doesn’t help my case.