Image courtesy of Elysium.
For its many virtues, and Neill Blomkamp’s Oscar-nominated debut District 9 had quite a few of them (remarkable world-building, seamless special effects), subtlety would not be counted among them.
In a genre where allegory dominates and the socio-political messages contained therein are safely tucked away in an easily digestible entertainment package, Blomkamp put his ideas at the forefront and did not shy away from engaging with the historical precedents that allowed for them. The blending of aggressive message picture and science-fiction world building was indeed intoxicating.
Blomkamp’s been given the keys to the Hollywood kingdom with Elysium (out last Friday), and the returns have diminished slightly; the message is somehow even more aggressively straightforward and the increased budget has made for some truly immersive world-building, but the story ambles about, periodically coming to life but losing the laser focus of a Samuel Fuller drama, instead feeling like a bloated cousin to the gory satires of '90s-era Paul Verhoven.
The premise is established up front with the 1 percent moving off the increasingly depleted Earth to the titular space station that hovers in its orbit, and the 99 percent are left to live in squalor with Los Angeles (circa 2154) basically having become a favela. It’s here we meet ne’er-do-well Max (Matt Damon), trying to atone for the criminal activities of his youth by working long hours in dangerous factory conditions helping to build the robots that police the poor and serve the rich.
An accident on the factory floor leaves Max with limited time to make good on his dream to make it to Elysium with his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga), so he takes on a dangerous mission to earn his chance at being smuggled up. He’s then fitted with a robo-exoskeleton that grants him nebulous powers (a similar suit allows for a character to jump what appears to be three stories into the air later in the picture, much to my surprise) and placed smack in the middle of a conspiracy plot involving Elysium’s secretary of defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster, rocking an amazing Space WASP accent), her viciously amoral black ops soldier back on Earth named Kruger (District 9’s Sharlto Copley) and a whole host of desperate characters attempting to bring equality to these polarized worlds.
Part of the problem is that Blomkamp’s done an amazing job creating the ruined Earth that Damon’s Max lives in and done very little with Elysium to make it a compelling place to spend any of our running time. We’re never given a sense of what life is like or how it operates on Elysium (only the narratively efficient health beds that can cure paralyzation, leukemia and MISSING FACES with relative ease) and spend all of our time on Elysium with Jodie Foster’s political maneuvering instead of creating a genuine parallel to the hell on Earth we’re witnessing the rest of the time.
And while the hot-button Issues of immigration and affordable health care are integrated deftly into the story line and given front and center status, they’re unfortunately obfuscated by a plot that never settles on a direct course of action, instead puttering about with multiple villains with different motivations instead of giving our protagonist a clear and achievable impediment to thwart.
There’s too much excess (a useless framing device that needlessly inserts the tired notion of destiny into the plot, a third act that literally chases its own tail as it searches for a suitable climax) where a leaner, meaner approach would’ve suited the material. There’s far too much positive going on for me to not recommend checking out Blomkamp’s vision on the big screen; all of the actors are giving it their all (Damon: serviceable, Foster: hilarious, Copley: Next-level crazy town banana pants), Blomkamp deploys his staccato bursts of violence in delightfully unexpected moments and the special effects are a truly majestic blend of practical and computer work.
Much like the majority of this summer’s attempts at creating memorable sci-fi, Elysium disappoints. But luckily, Blomkamp’s vision is such that even his disappointments prove eminently watchable.