Neill Blomkamp | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Spanish, French & Afrikaans | 15 / R
The year is 2154 (the same year as Avatar, apparently. No idea if that’s meant to signify anything). The wealthy have left Earth to live in a giant space station of luxury called Elysium, rendering Earth (or, at least, Los Angeles) one gigantic ethnic slum. It’s in the latter we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who winds up in a factory accident that leaves him with just five days to live — unless he can get to Elysium, where their Magical Medical Machines could heal him in minutes. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the cash to buy transport from his criminal connections; and even if he did, the station’s over-zealous security chief (Jodie Foster) has a habit of blowing up approaching illegal immigrants. Fortunately, there may be a more revolutionary option…
That said, this isn’t a film about a principled revolution, something it seems a few viewers have unfairly judged it for because that’s what they expected or wanted. It is an issue-driven film (to an extent), but rather than present a mass revolt motivated by the desire to Change Things, it follows the effects brought about when people — even one man — are pushed to extremes just to survive. Whether the world this occurs in is a wholly plausible SF future is debatable, but I’m not sure that’s the point. Elysium is a parable; one related to current hot-button topics (in the US especially) like immigration and access to healthcare for the poor. I’m sure some would therefore characterise it as Left Wing, for good or ill, but I think its underlying message is more fundamental than that: it’s just humanitarian.
Unfortunately, it seems writer-director Neill Blomkamp (of the acclaimed District 9) got distracted by his Point and slipped up in other areas. There are various bits and pieces of the plot that don’t quite hang together — so many quibbles, in fact, that I’m not even going to attempt to go into them. Some are hand-wavable under the “it’s a parable” excuse, others just seem sloppy; how much they impact your enjoyment will vary.
Characters get short shrift too. Every one is more sketched than drawn, which is problematic for the leads: Damon is left with little to do other than fight things and try to inject pathos in to what scraps of personality are there. It’s the same for sort-of love interest Alice Braga, who alternates between looking concerned and looking caring. An early tease of a romantic subplot all but evaporates: Damon persuades her to meet him for coffee at eight, but then he doesn’t seem to turn up and neither of them mention it again. You what?
Supporting characters are commonly less detailed anyhow, so at least the remaining cast are not so poorly served. Sharlto Copley is in a deliciously scowling-panto-villain mode as the primary physical antagonist, almost seeming to be from a different movie because he’s having such fun. Diego Luna and, in particular, Wagner Moura offer able support on the side of our hero, even if it is sometimes a bit “white person with person-of-colour sidekicks”. Goodness only knows what Jodie Foster is doing, though. It sounds and looks like she’s struggling with a bizarre accent, while always being American. A similar problem seems to afflict William Fichtner to a lesser extent, so perhaps it’s some incomprehensible deliberate decision to differentiate the wealthy from the normal folk? I’ve read one report that Foster’s entire performance had to be dubbed, which might be a better explanation.
Ultimately, there’s little that can undermine its social point (even if the solution here is perhaps not as splendiferous as it first appears), but if you’ve decided to not be cognisant of that in favour of The Plot, they might grate more. Conversely, if you want to watch people in cool future spaceships wearing cool future armour shoot at each other with cool future guns, not much is going to trouble you. There’s a fair degree of that, because Blomkamp has (wisely?) slipped in his moral points under the aegis of an action movie. In that regard it’s fine — there’s nothing exceptionally memorable, and there’s some borderline-distracting hoop-jumping to keep threats both coming and suitably dangerous, but it’s efficient enough.
There’s also something viscerally pleasurable about seeing a decently-budgeted R-rated effects movie these days. You’d think that classification would keep the budget down, but it reportedly cost over $100 million — and it looks it, with epic must-be-CGI situations that are faultlessly rendered. I suppose when the biggest PG-13 blockbusters are seeing their costs spiral towards triple that, a budget that only nudges into nine figures doesn’t look so bad. Hopefully that’s good news for those of us who would like to see more grown-up (whether that be intellectually or violently) effects-requiring movies.
In fact, the film’s strongest element all-round is almost certainly its production design. Some of it is of the “nothing new” variety (the robot police, the ‘ship designs, the see-through future computers — all good work, but broadly familiar), but then you have pieces like the mission control-style command room of Elysium’s security services: large, multi-level, glossily black, but with vine-like plants crawling up the surfaces. It’s a bit different; it works. Everything is crafted or augmented with that flawless CG work, providing a drip-feed of enjoyable or intriguing sights.
Blomkamp is a writer-director clearly committed to doing bold work in a film genre that is increasingly about spectacle over story, action over allegory, popcorn-selling over point. Elysium may not be the fully-realised vision he was likely hoping for, and more work on the screenplay would clearly have been a benefit, but top marks to the man for trying to do something worthwhile. Surely he remains one to watch.
Elysium is new to Sky Movies this week, starting today on Premiere at 4pm and 8pm. It’s also on Now TV, of course.