Elysium is the much anticipated second film from director Neil Blomkamp, but it falls short of working on almost every level.
District 9 is a masterpiece of sci-fi film making, a lofty bar to clear, and as a follow up film Elysium certainly doesn’t have what it takes to top it. But we aren’t here to just compare and contrast the two films from Blomkamp and as Elysium tries to stand on its own it does about as well as a radiation filled Matt Damon.
The most shocking thing about Elysium is just how straightforward and unoriginal it feels. Yes, the world building is solid, the weaponry is cool and the imagery of the Earth to Elysium is awe inspiring, but it also feels like a bit too much of a retread from his previous film. After Blomkamp’s burst of originality in District 9 it was a bit of an adjustment to get “more of the same.” Sure the dystopia is far more widespread than a couple of slums, but the imagery is eerily familiar. And for as cool as some of the tech and weaponry are, Blomkamp doesn’t do anything we haven’t really seen before with it; you can only blow up people/robots so many ways. The future tech, even set well over a hundred years in the future, also is a little bit silly and absurd if you think about it too hard. Sure it is supposed to just lend itself to the allegory, but I had a hard time holding back laughter at the end of this film.
And that plot? Oof. The prophesied hero, one last job, getting sucked back into a life of crime, a race against death, the damsel/child that needs to be saved, it all “works” in the plotting of the film but that is a lot of incredibly tired tropes all the same. That’s not to say there aren’t some new ideas that are worth checking out, the baddest droids this side of HK-47 and dramatic facial reconstruction for instance, but these elements are too brief and too far between.
The film is also almost entirely devoid of any real characters, with its best shot at one ruined by the third act. I am referring to Sharlto Copley’s villainous Kruger who starts off as a pretty fun and nasty bad guy before devolving into a cartoon of himself before giving himself over to motivations that make no sense whatsoever. Copley is having a blast, but the script betrays him in the end. Everyone else in the film is fine enough, but nobody gets a character to really embody that allows for much of anything. Matt Damon is a fine action hero in the film, but his character’s motivation is so generic that we could care less about him or him succeeding. Alice Braga is saddled with the damsel role and one of the film’s few plot cheats is used to pull her into the mix of the finale. Jodie Foster is again fine, but her character is given zero motivations as to why she is the way she is and why she wants to do exactly what she wants to do. And don’t even get me started on how she is pushed out of the picture. Diego Luna brings some energy to his brief scenes, but I’m pretty sure Wagner Moura is terrible here. He is a limping plot device and one of the weakest elements of the film. Hey, at least we got more William Fichtner this summer.
Blomkamp is on the hook for all of the film’s missteps as he both wrote and directed the picture, but his direction is just as weak as his pen. The action is atrocious at times here and his camerawork for these scenes is also done with tight and unintelligible shaky cam most of the time. What the hell happened? He experiments with the camera as well with some speed ramping and such, he still knows how to blow people up, but he also tries some weird digital camera pans and such that are really jarring when the randomly pop up for seemingly no good reason. And that final fight, oh man, it might be the worst third act set piece of the summer. The scale is small, the fight has zero tension and it pales compared to anything good that came before it, plus since we don’t care about the characters we don’t really care how it turns out. And did I mention you can’t tell what the hell is going on in the slightest during the fight? The extended set piece around a crashed ship is the action highlight of the film, but I wouldn’t tell anybody they need to rush out to see it because it’s so good or anything.
Elysium might be the biggest disappointment of the year and that is a shame because I have such high hopes for Blomkamp. Is the film an unwatchable disaster? No. But there are so many things it does so mediocre that you can’t help but wonder what the hell happened. The film is fine enough to watch for the first two thirds or so, but it hits a point where you can’t stop shaking your head as you try to figure out how this all went so wrong. Blomkamp still intrigues me greatly as a director, but next time out I hope he decides to dive into some fresh and compelling material.
Elysium is a D+