There's a masterpiece bubbling underneath the surface of writer/director Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed box-office success District 9. While I have no doubt that Elysium looked mighty fine on paper, the resulting film is so riddled with plot holes and half-baked characters that not even those politically inclined to embrace its populist philosophy are likely to find the film messy, inconsistent and more than a tad disappointing given the abundant promise of Blomkamp's debut.
Elysium opens with cloying promise as a young Max is welcomed into a Catholic run orphanage on what's left of Earth in the 22nd century. Max quickly bonds with a young Hispanic girl named Frey, who understands far greater than Max the enormous colony that exists far above the wasteland that is now Earth. The colony, Elysium, is home to the planet's enormously wealthy and affords them everything their heart desires including the ability to quickly cure nearly all illnesses. Max promises Frey that one day he will take her to Elysium.
Flash forward and Max (Matt Damon) is laboring away on Earth while on probation for choices he made in his young adult years. When a not so freak accident at work leaves him with toxic levels of radiation, he is given a few pills to sustain him for the five days he is given to live. At about the same time, Max runs into Frey (Alice Braga), now a nurse with a daughter (Emma Tremblay) dying of leukemia. Max becomes determined to find a way to get to Elysium with the help of Spider (Wagner Moura), a rebel and fellow con with whom he'd once worked. After being gruesomely fitted with an exo-skeletal suit designed to strengthen his physically weakened body, Max and his team attempt to kidnap and steal vital information from John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who also just so happens to be the CEO of Max's former employer. Unexpectedly, the heist retrieves information about a planned coup on Elysium to be masterminded by Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster). Rhodes has zero tolerance for anything that disrupts the peaceful Elysium and enforces her will with the help of Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a secret agent of sorts willing to do whatever dirty work needs done.
Whereas District 9 was filled with rich detail and expansive character development along with a true sense of communal awareness, Elysium is a far more shallow effort possessing style over substance and paper-thin characters whose actions and decisions seem to be more a function than an actual purpose. This is not to say that Elysium is a bad film - it's not. Elysium is a disappointing film because one can see the richness of Blomkamp's vision and by film's end it has become frustrating to see it all tossed to the side with a $100 million production budget and an abundance of gadgets and special effects. While there's no doubt that Elysium is one of the better sci-fi films of Summer 2013, the simple truth is that's not saying much in what has been a fairly underwhelming season for the genre. There's also no doubt that Elysium affirms Blomkamp's talent even if it doesn't exactly live up to it.
Matt Damon is about as effective as possible as Max, though one can't help but think that Blomkamp didn't quite capitalize on everything American audiences know and love about Damon by confining him to that exo-skeletal suit that limits both Damon's physical and emotional ranges. While Damon is good here, he's not good on the level to which Damon fans have become accustomed. It doesn't help that Blomkamp has weighed him down with a gravity that is nearly as cumbersome as his body suit.
Alice Braga gives the film some badly needed emotional resonance and a welcome warmth that conflicts with just about everyone else we encounter on both Earth and Elysium. On the flip side, Jodie Foster serves up what will unquestionably qualify as one of her least satisfying performances in playing one of the film's baddie, a political heavy with a narcissistic agenda and a willingness to kill anyone who even thinks about getting in her way. Sharlto Copley, who experienced a break-out similar to that of Blomkamp when he starred in District 9, is the film's real baddie in both character and performance. Copley mumbles his way through every bad guy cliche' with a heavy South African accent that will leave you wondering why they only subtitled the film's occasional Spanish lines while a good half of Copley's dialogue is indecipherable gibberish. It's an abysmal distraction made worse by Copley's over-the-top performance delivering lines that constantly feel like something got left on the cutting room floor.
Now then, I have a confession.
I am not a sci-fi geek. While nearly all of my friends are nerds, gamers, and geeks, I am an almost exclusively right-brained human being completely devoid of the type of logic needed to weave one's mind around the best sci-fi films. While I had little difficulty with the more humanitarian-based District 9, I've often found myself leaving sci-fi screenings with my film critic friends listening to my brain slosh around as they discuss the intricacies and intimacies of a film's internal and external worlds. That said, with Elysium I not only had no problem following its story but found myself time and again muttering "That doesn't even make sense."
For example, a central component to the film involves the necessity of a coup for Secretary Rhodes to assume leadership of Elysium. With one ridiculous line, Blomkamp blows that entire concept to smithereens and makes a central element of the film's storyline completely illogical.
Fellow critic Christopher Lloyd from The Film Yap also observed the complete lack of logic in an elitist colony's working so hard to keep the Earth's residents out but failing to see that "gifting" them with some of the essential tools for healing would eliminate their key reason for continuously trying to smuggle themselves to the colony.
The list truly goes on and on.
The film's sound design, which is at least a little bit to blame for Copley's indecipherable dialogue, thunders along with little variation while Ryan Amon's original score is a piercing and intrusive distraction. Trent Opaloch's lensing does manage to impress during the film's action sequences, though Blomkamp hasn't quite mastered the art of dramatics necessary to segue from action to drama to intimacy.
To Blomkamp's credit, Elysium never crash lands despite appearing constantly on the verge of doing so. While the film is more than a little disappointing given Blomkamp's impressive debut, Elysium also possesses enough intelligence, suspense and social relevance to reinforce that even with a modestly disappointing film Blomkamp remains one of the more promising of the up-and-coming sci-fi directors.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic