Count me a fan of director Neil Blomkamp’s 2009’s District 9, which brought a refreshing reinvention to the dystopian sci-fi film with a keen visual sense, a new accomplished performer at the center (Sharlto Copley), and the social resonance of South Africa’s war on apartheid underneath the entire set-up. Count me less of a fan of Elysium.
Elysium is bigger, grander in scale, and has Oscar-winning performers in Matt Damon (yes, I know that his Oscar was for writing, but he’s one of our best and one of our most underrated—see The Informant!) and Jodie Foster. Instead of aliens vs. the government, we have earthlings stuck in a ravaged post-everything’s-gone-wrong landscape on our planet vs. the rich and entitled living in a Mercedes-Benz-logo-shaped space station in the sky (known as Elysium) that looks like the better parts of the Florida coast. But the film is simultaneously more and less. The budget is bigger and the effects are better (and they were already good in District 9), but the surprise and freshness of the earlier film doesn’t inform our viewing of Elysium, and it shows rather large cracks.
There wasn’t a great deal of subtlety in District 9’s opposing forces, but the main character carried us from one side to the other in his personal journey, and we grew with him in our understanding of the plight of the have-nots. We don’t find that here. We find the eminently likable Matt Damon as Max, one of the have-nots, so we are positioned as a have-not from the get-go. Apparently Elysium is where the beautiful people live. We know that because they have big houses and nice big lawns, and—get this!—they speak French! They also have complete control of the ultimate in health care in their special healing pods. Without giving away too much, Max gets very sick and needs one of the pods; therefore, he’ll do anything to get to Elysium. There are side plots that hinge on governmental overthrows and Inception-esque brain robbing, but this is an “I want to keep on living” film at its narrative core.
This part of the film is exciting, and makes for a rousing action film. The hand-held camerawork is overused throughout, and the action scenes often don’t get their timing right, adding awkward mental notes when one is not supposed to be thinking about such things. But it’s the weight of what surrounds those scenes that drags the film down and consistently compromises its value artistically.
Rich and/or powerful means evil here, and shades of grey are apparently not allowed. William Fitchner plays a high-up reptilian bureaucrat in an unnecessary near-coma. That’s bad enough, as we know he’s able to bring shading to any of his characters. What’s worse is Blomkamp’s man Copley, here a raving mercenary and wild-eyed killing machine who shows none of the intelligence of his District 9 character, and is one-dimensional, brutal, and half-incomprehensible. But the biggest and most unexpected misstep is Jodie Foster. She is, in a word or two, pretty awful. She practically twirls her mustache in every other scene, and her apparently post-dubbed dialogue features a kind of generic upper class accent that simply doesn’t work and that is distracting in the actress’s apparent priority of accent over acting, which is somewhere on the level of a college performer just starting out. Seeing that Matt Damon appears to be directing himself as he relies on his standard array of acting tools (yet somehow making those work), it appears that the focus of Blomkamp’s efforts wasn’t the acting. Considering the talents of all he had in the cast, that’s the big tragedy of the film.
Blomkamp, clearly worried about the box office, is trying to insist that this film isn’t political. If this isn’t political, The Passion of the Christ wasn’t religious. Elysium (the place) is where the 1% live, the inability to go there is the immigration issue, the healing pods are universal health care, and apparently the 99% all speak Spanish along with English. Could that be….dare we say it…. Mexico? Unlike District 9, where the apartheid message was thoroughly but gently infused into the proceedings and had the advantage of a great historical victory behind it, Elysium pulls in too-obvious political connections with its story, which results in a heavy-handedness and raises questions that the film is nowhere near capable of answering. In that arena, the film falls somewhere between simplistic and downright silly.
Still, the ride is a fun one, and Blomkamp has a sense of place that rivals Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). Let’s hope that future endeavors will shuck oversimplified political agendas and pay a little more attention to the good actors he may have at his disposal.