The Movie Man: "Elysium" a jumbled mess
August 13, 2013, By Tim Fak, One of my favorite films a few years back was District 9. I’m always up for anything in the science fiction or fantasy realm, and that film was one of those great little ones that take everyone by surprise. I, and I’m sure many other people, guessed it would only be a matter of time before the director and creative team behind that film were given the chance to deliver a film on a bigger canvas with all the resources of the industry behind them. Well, this week, that moment finally arrived as I’ll be reviewing “Elysium”, writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s mega budget follow up to his earlier triumph. Sadly, although “Elysium” offers a few cool things, it’s ultimately just a jumbled mess and quite a disappointment.
Set in the year 2154, “Elysium” gives us a world populated by two classes of people, the elite, who live in a space station paradise, and the starving earthbound masses who must fight each other over dwindling resources. That’s a pretty classic set up, as far as sci-fi goes, and if you can identify the set up, you should also be able to predict the mechanics of the plot as well. We get a hero in the form of Max Da Costa a street hardened tough with a good heart, who after an accident inflicting him with a terminal illness finds himself with nothing to lose and recruited into a plot by some local heavies to steal financial information out of the mind of a billionaire.
Of course, the man is really holding secrets far in excess of mere bank accounts, and soon Da Costa is at the center of an intrigue that could shift the balance of power between the haves and the have nots. Like I said, a plot that’s been trod to death before, and I kept hoping for some original twist or turn that never came.
Da Costa is played by Matt Damon in a performance that is adequate, but far from great. He’s certainly a seasoned enough actor to hold the screen as the hero, but the character is somewhat one dimensional and that keeps him from ever taking off. We get enough information about him to facilitate the plot, but no more, and the end result is well…bland.
Jodie Foster plays the villain in a role that is slightly more interesting but also draws a bit too much on stereotypical villainous traits. Elysium is most definitely another film where the supporting cast (and characters) are far more interesting than the leads. While Alice Braga play’s Damon’s love interest and suffers a bit from the aforementioned blandness, all the rest of the supporting cast is a hoot. We get Sharlto Copley as a wildly unhinged assassin, Wagner Moura and Jose Pablo Cantillo as Da Costa’s colorful heist crew, and the always great William Fichtner as their wealthy mark. By far my favorite performance in the film was given by Wagner Moura as a low rent underworld kingpin whose motives may be far more complex than they first appear. I really, really wish some of the other characters got just a fraction of the depth and nuance that his did.
The strength of “Elysium” is that like most sci-fi films it provides a forum for viewers to see their own concerns about the present day. To paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert, it’s an allegory, but precisely for what depends a great deal on the person watching it. That’s not to say “Elysium” doesn’t have some specific critiques it wants to make, particularly as a somewhat ham fisted simplification of the ongoing debate over immigration (both legal and illegal) in our society. That said, I’m sure others will see it as a parable of resource management, overpopulation, social mobility and a host of others. In the end though, I doubt “Elysium” wants to make us think about anything serious nearly as much as it wants to present one pummeling action scene after another.
“Elysium” also does pretty well in that other Sci-Fi stronghold of production design. Some of the best stuff in the film lies in the small details that make up its futuristic world. There’s some cool looking technology and weapons, and some great make-up effects as well. The only real problem here is that again the film doesn’t really show us anything new. Perhaps this sub-genre has reached the point of saturation, where there’s just not much a film can offer that its audience hasn’t seen before.
My biggest beef with “Elysium” is that it has a tendency to be rather sloppy with holes in the plot and logic you could fly a spaceship through with ease. Virtually nothing that happens makes good sense considering the rules the film set’s for its world at the outset. Consider that our heroes need to get from the surface to the space station but cannot do so because the bad guys have grounded all shuttle take offs in the city of Los Angeles. Does it not occur to anyone to simply drive over to the city line? Further, imagine you’re trying to shoot down a spaceship. Does it make more sense to launch some sort of attack from space, or to use a ludicrous shoulder mounted missile launched from the surface? Finally, consider the ending, as usual I won’t give away specifics, but isn’t there something odd about the fate of one of the characters considering what has happened to several others prior. Really, there are just a lot of loose ends and stupid details that really bugged me about this film.
I also feel I should note that “Elysium” is largely filmed in a wobbly, shaky camera style that’s meant to emulate documentary or news footage, but also has been known to give some members of the audience an upset stomach.
“Elysium” is rated R for often brutal violence and some language. Now, I’m not one to be put off by copious amounts of gore (as a score of positive reviews for some pretty gory horror films can attest), but I found “Elysium” to be surprisingly graphic. Most of the action seems to revolve around various ways people can be exploded, complete with showers of blood, bone and body parts, and the film never shies away from going the explicit route when it comes to the bloody stuff. Maybe I’m just so used to summer action fests being PG-13 that one that takes its R rating seriously sticks out a bit, though I’m also sure that’s just what some people will be looking for.
Overall, “Elysium” is just a total miss for me. It has a big, sweeping scope, but just can’t create or sustain a story to match it. Fans of dystopian Sci-Fi might enjoy it, and it will probably please some people looking for an action film with a grittier, more adult themed sensibility, but as for me, I have a shelf full of similar films from years ago that I’ll rewatch a few times before I see this one again.
Rated 1 ½ stars out of a possible 4.