Elysium, the ambitious sophomore project from District 9 filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, is not quite the film it was hyped up to be. While that sounds incredibly negative, let me assure you that many aspects of the film work as fantastically as other parts fall flat and we are left with a flawed but exciting sci-fi film that I still recommend higher than other franchise-based blockbusters this season.
Off the bat, it was easy to predict that Elysium would not live up to expectations when compared to District 9. To be fair though, most other films won’t either and I doubt that Blomkamp will ever make another dark horse masterpiece which will be able to rival it. That said, Elysium is incredibly entertaining and I enjoyed it more than many other films of late with its biggest problem being the same that plagues many other films of this scale… the plot.
Heavy with political themes and social commentary, Elysium sometimes feels like it relies on its ‘theme’ rather than the plot to drive the story forward and in doing so, unfortunately, I often found myself thinking that a character’s motivation or the general direction of the story does not make much sense at all. The film makes a strong statement with regards to the distinction between social classes and healthcare but either sides of the social divide seems to be populated by cookie-cutter stereotypes which I found a bit disheartening, as I was hoping for a bit more real heart. Everyone on Earth seems dirty, poor, down-on-their-luck pseudo-criminals or social workers and Elysium is exclusively populated by evil, conservative country club members who all seem like they discuss golf most of the time. While this is an effective metaphor, the problem comes in with how the divide is handled and how it ties in with the motivations of the characters.
Matt Damon stars as Max, an ex-criminal, who is fatally dosed with radiation after an (extremely careless) accident at the droid factory where he works. He’s given 5 days to live and a handful of pills before he is thrown out. Desperate to live, he decides to turn back to his life of crime by asking the help of Spider (Wagner Moura). Armed with a cunning plan and an old exo-skeleton grafted onto his body, Max sets off on a rollercoaster ride that will either end with him on Elysium… or dead. Along the way his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), now a nurse, is drawn into the plan but she has motivation of her own to reach Elysium. As Max’s plan is executed he realises he has bitten off more than he can chew as his plans clash head-on with power-hungry Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who wastes no time in dispatching her best mercenary (Sharlto Copley) after him.
With regards to casting, the supporting roles steal the show, especially Sharlto Copley’s maniacal Kruger, a cybernetically enhanced South African ninja mercenary with the most prominent Pretoria accent you’ve ever heard, and Wagner Moura’s wild-eyed but charismatic Spider. It is extremely clear to see that Blomkamp saved the most fun in the film for Sharlto Copley as he moves from one adrenalin-fueled, violent scene to another with a blistering pace and incredible visuals. If there’s one thing that Neil Blomkamp does well, it is creating utterly believable sci-fi visuals and utilising them to their full potential.
Kruger is definitely worth another mention though, as Sharlto Copley is utterly convincing as one of the most terrifying villains I’ve seen on screen this year. And not just because of all the Afrikaans profanity. While Sharlto steals the show, a lot less can be said for Jodie Foster’s Delacourt. Definitely one of the most wooden performances I’ve seen to date without having to say the words “I am Groot!”. Matt Damon does well as “Joe Everyman” Max da Costa, besides being ultimately forgettable.
The world of Elysium itself, though, is quite fantastic. While, as I mentioned earlier, not everything makes 100% sense the world is filled with so much detail and, well, incredibly cool stuff, that it is easy to forget the other nagging issues which I’ve mentioned before. The scenes on Elysium would have been perfectly at home in a Mass Effect film and Earth itself, or at least the parts we are shown, is a dirty, dusty hive of favelas believably integrated with lived-in but ultra-cool sci-fi elements. Everything from the droids, the spacecraft to the weapons are a sight to behold and one of my only complaints would be that there are such a myriad of cool stuff on display, nothing gets adequate screen time.
All said, here’s why you should go and watch Elysium: It is one of the few unique non-franchise and non-sequel blockbusters of the season and for a sophomore effort, it stands head and shoulders above other sci-fi films of 2013 (I’m looking at you, Oblivion!) Watch it for Blomkamp’s masterful visual craft, watch it for Sharlto’s Kruger singing Jan Pierewiet and watch it so that we can see more unique films such as Elysium brought to life.
I’ll leave you with this: While I can’t take credit for the comparison, a friend and fellow critic mentioned to me that Neill Blomkamp seems to be walking down the same path taken by another cult-classic forging machine, Paul Verhoeven, and I dare say he is 100% correct. Neill Blomkamp’s blend of extravagant but believable hyper-violent fare is reminiscent of an era where science fiction films were taken more seriously and I believe that Elysium is nothing more than a highly entertaining sophomore slump, a bump in the road.
Last Updated: August 29, 2013