Monday, September 2, 2013

Summer’s Most Anticipated Original Film: Elysium Is Worthwhile, If Not Great.

The Good: Good social allegory, Decent effects
The Bad: Stiff acting, Minimal character development
The Basics: Elysium is a fresh take on socially-relevant problems that reminds viewers how smart science fiction can be, even if it lacks a spark of real greatness.

As Summer Blockbuster Season winds down this year, moviegoers have a lot to be disappointed by. This was not an epic summer by any means and I can only imagine how pissed off parents are at the sheer number of children’s films that were released to milk adults of their hard earned dollars. Still, as Summer Blockbuster Season came to its inevitable close, Neill Blomkamp tried to make a substantial cinematic outing. The director of District 9 (reviewed here!) released Elysium. Elysium was supposed to be the Prometheus (reviewed here!) of 2013; a science fiction epic shrouded in mystery before the film’s release that would resound with meaning and depth for genre fans. Elysium succeeded where Prometheus did not; it hit at the box office for the #1 in the United States that Prometheus was deprived of. Sadly, those anticipating Elysium would be something truly incredible were left wanting something more.

Elysium is good, but it lacks a zest or feeling of freshness that makes one want to rewatch the movie. There is a classic science fiction sensibility to Elysium, but it is so heavyhanded in its application that it is hardly enjoyable to watch. As important, given how oppressive the first half of the film is and how clearly it creates the economic conflict between Earth and Elysium, the latter half of the film which is largely a chase/extended fight sequence seems incongruent and surprisingly lowbrow.

Max grew up on a shattered Earth and in 2154, he is an ex-con who works on the line making the police robots that harass people like him. When he makes a joke to one of the robots, he ends up with a broken arm and an extension of his parole. Like the rest of the workers, Max has never been to Elysium, the elite and verdant space station high above Earth. When three undocumented ships take off from Earth for Elysium, Defense Secretary Delacourt has her asset on Earth shoot down the ships. Two of the three are destroyed with 46 casualties, but one makes it to Elysium and its fugitives are quickly apprehended, with some of them killed. At that time, Delacourt is ordered by the President to stop using the services of the war criminal Kruger and she reluctantly terminates her arrangement with him. That day, Max – who has been doing a good job of flying right and avoiding crime – is ordered by his boss into a jammed chamber on the line, which results in Max getting irradiated by the machine. With only five days to live, Max appeals to the crime lord Spider for a ticket to Elysium where his radiation sickness would be easily treated.

Spider’s price is a high one: Max must take a device and download the memories from the factory owner, Carlyle, for him to use. Seeing Max’s weakened state, Spider gives him a mechanical exoskeleton and Max and a small team attack Carlyle. The attempt to get Carlyle’s memories comes after Delacourt makes a secret pact with Carlyle for an exclusive contract and, in the process, he is given the codes to Elysium. With Carlyle’s memories in Max’s possession, Delacourt rehires Kruger and the two begin a game of cat and mouse that takes them from Earth to Elysium with Max’s life, the life of a small girl, and the lives of millions of humans living in poverty on Earth caught in the balance.

The dichotomy between Earth and Elysium is an obvious one. Earth is the refuse bin for the elite humans who are able to live on Elysium. While President Patel ostensibly runs Elysium, he has less real power than both the military (Delacourt) and the industrialists (Carlyle). That detail is one of the more subtle jabs writer and director Neill Blomkamp makes in Elysium. While Patel is clearly human, he is at the mercy of the literally inhuman (Carlyle) and the stiff and cold Delacourt. Delacourt uses the obvious “protect the children” excuse to justify her harsh means, but Blomkamp makes the strong argument that her ends do not justify her means, especially when so many humans are kept virtually enslaved on Earth.

The social message is populated by characters who are less compelling than the theme. Max is a criminal who has no higher ambitions than to live and it is hard to guess why. Earth is ruined and his life is craptastic. The man helps make the very robots who abuse him and that might be the only real spark of irony in the entire movie. The rest of the film is cold and embodies a narrow extension of the real-life horrors faced by the working poor today on most of the planet (including in the United States). Delacourt fights for her way of life without any real humanity to her character and that makes it impossible to empathize with what the residents of Elysium have. Sadly, that level thematic obviousness is less clever and undermines the fundamental truth that Blomkamp fails to land; these injustices are done by humans to humans. Delacourt’s lack of humanity undermines the point by making her seem like the other instead of like a common species with Max and Kruger.

Elysium is marred throughout by clunky and stiff acting. Jodie Foster’s performance as Delacourt is so stiff that when she makes her plea to Patel about the children and the importance of protecting Elysium, her delivery is almost laughable. Similarly, William Fichtner – who is usually wonderful – telegraph’s Carlyle in a way that is just a cheap rehashing of his character from Invasion (reviewed here!) as opposed to anything really new from him. Matt Damon similarly fails to land it as Max. Max is tough to care about, though one feels bad for the way he is pressured into the situation by which he is irradiated. Beyond that, he exhibits more empathy through aiding Frey’s sick daughter than anything Damon puts into his performance.

The result is that Elysium is generally smart, but not executed well-enough to truly make its point resonate. In other words, while the film might entertain, it will not change the world.

For other works with Alice Braga, please check out my reviews of:
Repo Men
I Am Legend


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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