Starring: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Jodie Foster, Diego Luna, William Fichtner
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp
When James Cameron’s magnum opus ‘Avatar’ was released, it quickly became derided – in certain circles – as ‘Fern Gully with guns’, due to the similarities in message and broad plot. If that statement is taken as true, then ‘Elysium’ can perhaps be taken, as my unfortunate viewing partner scoffed, as ‘Wall:E, but without the coherent plot and well-constructed world’.
In his last film, ‘District 9’, which actually came out in the same year as ‘Avatar’, Blomkamp took the idea of Apartheid and retold it with aliens. It wasn’t a terribly subtle film but it worked well, in large part because of some fine performances, a well thought out setting, and some thoroughly entertaining if occasionally nauseating set pieces. He brings many of the same building blocks to ‘Elysium’, but they somehow don’t quite stack together as well.
For a start, you’ve got the story. On the surface level, it’s quite similar to ‘District 9’, perhaps too similar. Matt Damon’s ex-con, Max, is a low level worker in an important corporation who winds up with fatal injuries. As a result, he goes on a quest for something to heal him, which may well end up in the downfall of an entire way of life, for good or worse. It’s nothing original, but in and of itself it isn’t anything particularly awful. However, there are certain things that really let it down; the shameless use of a sickly child as a device for plot and character development, not to mention the fact that if you sit down and think about it, the world of ‘Elysium’ makes absolutely no sense.
The basic premise is that over the course of the next century, the world has become so over-populated and polluted that the 1% have fled the planet to live on the titular space station, a place so technologically advanced that their med-pods can cure everything right up to and potentially including death (can you see where those ‘Wall:E’ similarities come in yet?). Everything down on Earth has gone to hell, with people scrabbling for jobs and money in a desperate attempt to survive or, more pertinently, to buy an illegal ticket to Elysium in a crushingly obvious parallel on immigrant smuggling, that parallel being contained within the broader parallel that rich people are bastards. This is the films overall message. Blomkamp allows nothing as adventurous as shades of grey in the film, and as such literally every character living on Elysium is either so cartoonishly villainous that Lex Luthor would scoff, or criminally apathetic to the point where it’s essentially a philosophical question as to who is worse.
It’s hard to really discuss this without going into spoiler territory, but an early example consists of Elysium’s defence system. Naturally, the citizens and government of Elysium don’t want those dirty poor people getting onto their nice clean space station, so there are systems in place to stop the shuttles arriving. Fair enough…if it weren’t for the fact that this system seems to consist solely of a hobo with a rocket launcher. Even worse, said hobo is actually living on Earth. When he’s called into action, he has to shoot down shuttles that have broken the atmospheric field, while standing in downtown Los Angeles. SF films that take loose approaches to the laws of physics are commonplace, and as a long-time fan of ‘Doctor Who’ I’ve learned to take such niggles in my stride, but ‘Elysium’ presents itself as a serious piece of work, and as such is held to a different standard; unfortunately, this example is the first of many niggles that jerk you out of the film. It’s even worse because there’s no reason for it; if people do get through, they’re escorted off the station with literally no effort or fuss, which brings us back to the cartoonish characterisation.
It’s hardly the first film to suffer from problems of logic – it isn’t even the first film this year to be undermined by such flaws; ‘Iron Man 3’, while an excellent film, relied upon the willingness of the audience to accept that on this occasion, none of the other super-heroes were going to show up, because…it’s an Iron Man film. ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ had a whole host of logical issues, not least of which was why there was a need for Star Fleet in a universe where you can teleport between planets. However, there are a few key differences in this. In the case of ‘Iron Man 3’, you could overlook niggles because it was a genuinely excellent film. In the case of ‘Into Darkness’, they were harder to overlook, but it wasn’t anything more than it claimed to be; an entertaining if shallow blockbuster. ‘Elysium’ is trying to be something different, a serious, ‘hard’ science-fiction film which might have big action scenes, but is fundamentally about political and social commentary – and that’s fine, but ‘Into Darkness’ has more nuance and subtlety, and whatever its merits, it is not an intellectual film.
However, there are other aspects of the film to consider. The story is clichéd and sledgehammer obvious, the characterisation is thin, but it isn’t entirely bad. The performances are perfectly adequate, although the only one that stands out as being especially engaging is Copley’s psychotic Kruger; given that he’s a murderous, gleefully insane mercenary who is also probably a rapist, it’s not necessarily a good thing that his is the most distinctive performance. Still, kudos to him for playing so thoroughly and successfully against his role in ‘District 9’.
Equally, there are some entertaining set pieces, some of which use slow-motion to better effect than anything since the original ‘Matrix’, and for all that much of the world doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, it is beautifully designed and shot.
Sadly though, adequate performances and entertaining action don’t make up for the flaws. A sad disappointment.