by Daniel Rester
Is using Greek words and ideas the new “thing” for filmmakers working with the science fiction genre? Last year we had Prometheus, and this year we have Elysium. Anyways, Elysium is writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his hit feature debut, the 2009 sci-fi film District 9. That film surprised movie-goers and proved Blomkamp had some possible potential to be a great filmmaker. So Elysium finds Blomkamp under the microscope, with people questioning if his last film was just a fluke or if the director really does have an extreme talent.
Elysium takes place on Earth during the year 2154. The planet is now a dystopia, replete with dirty streets and a smoggy atmosphere. Robots walk the streets as enforcers of the law while the human citizens are poor and often unhealthy. But those lucky and wealthy enough live on Elysium, a satellite within the orbit of Earth. Elysium provides beautiful homes and landscapes, and even comes with pods that can heal any wound or disease.
Enter Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), an ex-car thief now working in a robot factory run by a corporation called Armadyne. Max lives in Los Angeles, where he was raised as an orphan with his old friend, Frey (Alice Braga), who now works as a nurse and has a sick daughter. Max is exposed to lethal radiation at work one day, soon finding out that he has only five days to live. In order to live himself and possibly help Frey’s daughter along the way, Max teams up with his friend Julio (Diego Luna) and a smuggler named Spider (Wagner Moura) in order to try and get to Elysium.
Some big problems stand in the way of Max, though, including Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and Armadyne’s CEO, John Carlyle (William Fichtner). Also in the mix is Delacourt’s mercenary-for-hire, a psychotic man named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Delacourt plans on using Carlyle in order to fashion a computer virus that would reset things on Elysium and make her President. Complications occur, and soon Max is wearing an exoskeleton and has the virus data in a part in his mind. The power of the virus means everything to both Delacourt and Spider, though Max is more concerned with saving his own life – so getting to one of the health pods is his number one goal.
Elysium isn’t quite as effective as the near-groundbreaking District 9, but that isn’t to say that it is a bad film either. The movie does prove once again that Blomkamp is a true craftsman with the science fiction genre, one of the few working today that puts story, messages, and creative new ideas and visuals front and center.
It must be said, though, that Blomkamp so far has proven to be a much stronger director than screenwriter. It is admirable that Blomkamp actually has his science fiction stories have meaning, but his writing often feels too straightforward and heavy-handed. Elysium mainly disappoints with the writing aspect, presenting quite a few missed opportunities for some subtlety at times and complexity at other times. The film is obviously an allegory about immigration, class warfare, healthcare, etc., but it would have been nice if Blomkamp didn’t just spoon-feed such ideas to the audience and instead added some more layers to them. Still, his efforts of wanting to go beyond just blowing things up in the modern sci-fi filmmaking world are refreshing.
What Blomkamp lacks with the pen, he definitely makes up for with the camera. This man is an extraordinary young director, the type of visionary that the science fiction genre needed in this early part of the century. The diegesis of Elysium seems a bit familiar when compared to other dystopian worlds, but much of the technological props, production design, and visual effects that Blomkamp uses are amazing; the director definitely owes props to his practical design and CGI teams. The effects blend seamlessly with the story, and Blomkamp displays a number of cool gadgets and tricks that are very impressive. The director also has a good sense for story pacing and with how to present his actors and the settings around them. Julian Clarke and Lee Smith’s editing and Trent Opaloch’s cinematography also deserve credit for helping to add to the grittiness and swiftness of the exciting action scenes in the film.
The other anchors (besides Blomkamp’s direction) that keep the film together are Damon and Copley. Damon is credible as Max, providing an anti-hero that is worth rooting for. The actor’s emotional range isn’t quite put to the test here, but he displays enough physicality and personality to deliver a solid performance. And then Copley nearly scene-steals as Kruger. The actor, who was the lead in District 9, is occasionally over-the-top and fumbles a bit of dialogue, but most of the time he applies just the right amount of menace and intensity to make for a terrific performance.
Less effective are the rest of the performers. Luna and Moura are likable-enough as Max’s partners, while Braga and Fichtner add some presence with their small roles. But none of these actors really get enough screen time to have their characters be worth caring much about. Then there is Foster. The two-time Oscar winner gives a mostly-poor but sometimes passable performance as Delacourt. She seems to struggle with the strange accent that Blomkamp has her employ here, and a lot of the time she just looks unrelaxed.
Elysium isn’t a super intelligent sci-fi home run like many hoped for, but it is above-average sci-fi and it frequently entertains. The film features an acceptable concept, a lot of exciting (and occasionally bloody) visuals, skillful direction, and two excellent performances. It may disappoint on some levels, but on many others it excels, and that makes it mostly successful.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).