REVIEW: Elysium [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 109 minutes | Release Date: August 9th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Neill Blomkamp
Writer(s): Neill Blomkamp

“The hippo wanted a friend”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a guy like writer/director Neill Blomkamp would find his sophomore effort lacking in intelligently original storytelling despite an infusion of studio money to help elevate what was already a stellar visual aesthetic. His Academy Award nominated District 9 shocked the world via its biting political message in recreating his home country’s darkest days of Apartheid with amazing alien effects by Image Engine. If anything he was too good his first time out and as a result found his new high profile a magnet for expectations he could never meet. Blomkamp therefore looked to go bigger and better like every independently minded auteur that gets sucked into the Hollywood system. Unfortunately for him—and almost all such artists—this mainstream road also points towards a dumbing down of the message.

This is where Elysium is left languishing: a realm of stunning visuals and awe-inspiring concepts worthy of its $115 million budget saddled by a disappointingly rehashed science fiction plot devoid of teeth. The man behind District 9 should have knocked its separation of classes, government corruption, and futuristic Big Brother toys out of the park. A world where the sick and poor are left to fend for themselves on Earth while the rich enjoy the lap of luxury at a space station right outside their atmosphere with medical bays able to cure every ailment in seconds? It’s a fantastic springboard to expand upon with new insight, satire, and underdog wiles capable of toppling an empire. Everything is included for a film smart enough to spark conversation and yet one can’t help noticing something’s missing.

Maybe missing is the wrong term as the reality is that Blomkamp forgot his message and decided to push politics aside for the more personal human trope of unrequited love instead. With the action and scope sprawling astronomically wider than his debut, it appears that he thought he could rein everything in by giving unwitting hero Max (Matt Damon) an emotional reason to fight. So he adds the puppy love of youth wherein Max and best friend Frey (Alice Braga) dream of a future where they leave Earth behind to join the elite above. It’s a fantasy that real life beats out of them quickly when she discovers hard work can provide an escape from the deplorable conditions of home and he joins the one business tailor-suited to his skill set: crime.

Without any fleshing out of a rebellion or inventive strategy for the little guys to overthrow an untouchable entity protected by a viciously effective robot police force, however, Blomkamp decides to let convenience and coincidence rule the day. When an accident gives Max five days to live, he could care less about anyone but himself. He decides he must go to Elysium for a cure and will do whatever is necessary to do so. Unfortunately for an adult Frey and her terminally ill daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), their wellbeing doesn’t coincide with that plan. So all that love introduced to humanize him actually undoes him because the best way to ensure an audience’s indifference to their hero’s plight is to draw him self-centered and desperate. Anything happening beyond this point is therefore only happy coincidence.

It’s Max’s want for revenge that provides him the victim who just happens to possess information capable of taking over Elysium (William Fichtner) and it’s all because Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) decided today of all days would be the start to her coup. Instead of having Max’s unspoken love for Frey force him to try and cure her daughter, it’s dark fate intervening through a violent kidnapping that puts them in position for help and officially drives home the fact Damon’s character has no selfless bone in his body. Max is quite literally guided through a series of checkpoints by his mistakes and the plot progresses without surprise. Naturalism is thrown out the window while lazy writing and lapses in judgment by all allow everyone to be exactly where they’re needed at the end.

Disappointing for sure, I somehow still found myself invested in the film anyway. I thought it moved along at a nice pace, the high-tech gadgetry courtesy of production designer Philip Ivey is gorgeous, and the acting is just over-the-top enough to feel stylized instead of misguided. Fichtner’s Carlyle is a fun bit of monotone elitism, Foster’s Delacourt may go a tad too far in her villainous power grab, and Sharlto Copley‘s sadistically homicidal government spook Kruger is a juicy bit of excess. They are pure evil because they must be in order for us to want Damon’s tough-talking coward to be likeable despite his every action’s motivation of self-interest. It’s bad when Wagner Moura’s unrepentant cyber gang leader Spider is revealed as the actual hero of the film because he can see the bigger picture.

By the end I found myself more frustrated than anything else because the potential was there. Elysium is beautifully rendered as an open air wheel basking in the sun through its own atmosphere; Earth uses the poverty-stricken sites of Mexico City’s Iztapalapa district effectively as the backdrop of a life in pursuit of more; and the exoskeletal suits worn by Damon and Copley allow for some physically brutal fisticuffs. There is an authenticity to the tone and design that’s simply lacking in its one man defeating tyranny by accident storyline. And even though love becomes Max’s inevitable motivating factor, it being ignored until the finale only renders its outcome that much more clichéd. Composed of the easy good versus bad dynamic we expect from Hollywood, it sadly couldn’t satisfy the promise of Blomkamp’s debut.

[1] Matt Damon stars in Columbia Pictures’ ELYSIUM. PHOTO BY: Kimberley French © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
[2] Frey (ALICE BRAGA, right) is confronted by Kruger (SHARLTO COPLEY, left) in TriStar Pictures’ ELYSIUM. PHOTO BY: Kimberley French © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
[3] TriStar Pictures’ ELYSIUM. PHOTO BY: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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