When writer-director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in an explosion of bloody alien gibs and “fooking prawns” with District 9, two things happened: 1) Hollywood, and the world, was introduced to a brave new filmmaking voice that wasn’t afraid to take some violent, visceral risks while still engaging the ol’ grey matter; and 2) the bar for his next film was set stupidly high.
With that in mind, I’ve tried my damndest to judge Neill Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium, on its own merits, and not play the District 9 comparison game. That being said though, I have to report straight off the bat that Elysium is not as good as D9. Which is quite the pity, because it could have been.
Ask anybody that’s seen D9 who the lead character was, and I can guarantee that the vast majority of them would loudly answer “Wikus van der Merwe” before trying to do an impersonation of the popular character. It’s only been 5 days since I’ve seen Elysium and it required a look on IMDB for me to remember what Matt Damon’s lead character’s name was – it’s Max De Costa, by the way.
Elysium is supposed to be about the very human struggle of Max Da Costa, a former thief and parolee eeking out a living in dust-grimed future Los Angeles, dreaming since he was a child about travelling up to Elysium, the grand space station in the sky where all the wealthy folk live in abundant luxury and almost sinful comfort, right down to the nigh-magical med-pods that can heal every physical malady instantaneously.
Instead, Max Da Costa is nothing more than a faceless plot device in an exo-skeleton. The same goes for Jodie Foster’s chief antagonist, Elysium Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt, except that her power-suit is actually a power suit. Through a case of not having all that much in Blomkamp’s script to work with, and then not doing much with what they have, Damon and Foster simply coast through their roles, not doing anything overtly wrong at all, but robbing these characters of any character – and audience connection- they may have.
Max’s tale kicks off when he is accidentally irradiated at the manufacturing plant where he works, constructing the very droids that serve the citizens of Elysium and keep the poor under heel on Earth – ooh, irony – and he is only given five days to live, a handful of pills, and a swift kick out the door. Thanks for your servitude, check you later. Desperate, he turns to his old criminal cronie pal Spider (Wagner Moura, all limping leg and crazy eyes) to hatch a crazy plan – involving an exo-skeleton being painfully grafted onto his skeletal and nervous system, and an old childhood friend Frey (a meek Alice Braga), with a medical need of her own – to reach Elysium and heal himself. This despite Secretary Delacourt’s hobby of shooting down ships – even those *mustache twirl* filled with sick women and children *maniacal laugh*- trying to reach her shiny home in the sky.
And when Max, in his frantic attempts, comes into possession of a certain piece of info that Delacourt would dearly love to get her French-tipped, blood soaked fingers on, she calls up her favourite black ops field agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley, playing an Afrikaans cyborg ninja hobo, who is every bit as awesome as he sounds) to rain down death, destruction and the most nightmarish rendition of Jan Pierewiet the world has ever seen.
And thank the gods for Copley, as he injects an infectious, manic glee into a bit of a lumbering first half filled with too many eye-rolling coincidences, upping the fun factor as much as he ups the Afrikaans swear word quota. Kruger cuts a path of adrenalizing destruction through the film which also allows Blomkamp to stretch his action director muscles a bit to rather spectacular results. Coming from a VFX background, he has an almost unparalleled knack for seamlessly merging live-action footage with CGI elements, and this is never more prevalent than in some of the film’s great action beats, as characters engage in punch- and shoot-ups with deadly efficient droid warriors, and Kruger’s band of paramilitary “boytjies”.
This visual fidelity also shines through (literally) in Elysiums’ glittering lakes, manicured lawns and sprawling villas of chrome and glass. This is truly an amazing, very believable world to look at, and Blomkamp constructs it from hundreds of tiny details: from the rundown, lived-in favelas of Earth; to the look, feel and sounds of the future technology on display, and to what happens to the human body when it ends up on the business end of a rail gun. Spoiler: it’s kind of gross, but very cool.
What’s not cool, is just how heavy handed and clumsy Blomkamp’s script is in places. In Elysium, rich people are evil and poor people are good, finish and klaar. Blomkamp handily beats you around the head with this bit of “social commentary”, every chance he gets, until you’re in need of a magical med-pod yourself. It’s about as subtle as a hand grenade to the face (which is something that you see in this film in all it’s gory glory), and the film’s ending is left rather messy due to this decision to pontificate.
Now many directors who reach massive acclaim with their debut film, find themselves failing dismally when trying to replicate that success a second time. That is definitely not the case, as there is still a lot to recommend here. Its script may feature some brute force writing, it may have some pacing issues in the beginning and virtually every character is more interesting than the main hero and villain, but with some well choreographed and unflinching action sequences, peerless visuals, insanely detailed world-building and a scene stealing turn from Sharlto Copley, this is more of a sophomore stumble than a fall. Let’s hope he can pick himself up again for his next project.
Last Updated: August 27, 2013