Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: "Elysium"

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 109 minutes

I once read an astute assessment of director Neill Blomkamp's District 9, wherein the author pointed out that one of that film's best traits was the feeling that there was an entire world beyond the confines of what was captured on the camera. Blomkamp's lived-in, grungy alien ghetto in Johannesburg, with its crustacean-esque inhabitants, was one of that film's best attributes. For that matter, so was the alien technology, which struck a refreshing balance between looking economical and futuristic. Blomkamp's gift with tech design remains firmly intact with Elysium, and it's only magnified with his much larger budget. Unfortunately, what Elysium packs in great design, it lacks in compelling characters or consistent writing. 

Where District 9 imagined a world where aliens became refugees in the present, Elysium catapults humanity into the future (surely, someone is already at work proving that the two films exist in the same timeline). As expected, everything is bigger in Elysium, with its massive (titular) space colony (for the 1%-ers, naturally), and chaotic, sprawling cities. Like many a dystopia, the main earthly setting is Los Angeles. However, the city looks like a frigteningly large slum, rather than the chilly neon metropolis found in, say, Blade Runner. To put it bluntly: Earth has become something of a hell hole.

The fact that Elysians have miraculous medical pods that can cure basically anything certainly isn't helping relations between the colony and the overcrowded blue sphere below. Officials like security minister Delacort (Jodie Foster) try to make sure that things stay that way. When three ships try to break into Elysium to utilize the med-pods, Delacort swiftly orders her rogue agent Kruger (District 9 lead Sharlto Copley) to shoot them down. All in a day's work between brunches and housewarming parties. 

So who's to stand up to Delacort's violent elitism? If you guessed that it's the fella who looks like Matt Damon, you'd be correct. After an accident at work leaves Damon's Max with only five days to live (pointed out in a darkly funny exchange with a medicine-dispensing robot), the ex-con decides to try and make his way to Elysium to heal himself. Of course, complications arise (for both Max and Delacort), and soon Max's mission becomes not just a quest to heal himself, but to try and break Elysium's stranglehold on its near-miraculous health care technology.

Yet even within the confines of a relatively straightforward set-up, Blomkamp ultimately falls victim to his larger budget. The look of his world, as rendered through truly stunning special effects work, is first rate. It's sleek and detailed without ever looking plastic. Rather than go all out with huge VFX battles, the director keeps the action largely contained to shootouts and fistfights. He allows his technology to merely enhance the action, rather than overtake it. Even more impressive is that Blomkamp allows his conflicts to get appropriately grisly (credit should also go to the studio, for not forcing Blomkamp to make the film PG-13).

But all of the cool gadgetry in the world can't cover up the thin writing. For the first two thirds, Elysium manages to stay afloat, as it builds its world and the various conflicts. Damon has some appealing moments as he jokes with (or openly mocks) the brutish droid police. And, as evidenced by the Bourne films, he makes for a compelling action hero, even with a frame significantly more compact than many of his contemporaries. Sharlto Copley, meanwhile, appears to be having a lot of fun as the sadistic Kruger, while Alice Braga injects some appealing naturalism into her role as a friend from Max's childhood. 

The performance that's sure to leave most people talking, and not necessarily in a good way, is Jodie Foster. What seems like a strong match of character and actor is thrown off by Foster's puzzling pseudo-French accent. It doesn't derail the performance, but it's an unnecessary distraction that's only made worse because Delacort isn't much more than the average cold hearted antagonist. Like most of Elysium, she's functional and expected, despite a level of visual craft that suggests something far superior.

The relative blandness of the writing rears its ugly head once the final act arrives, and permanently throws Elysium off course. The stakes are there, but there's little tension because of the disconnect between the effort put into the film's look, versus the effort put into the film's characters. By the time the finale starts, Damon's character almost feels like an afterthought, even though he remains the protagonist. Instead of tension, the ending turns into tedium, as the plot lurches along through a checklist of events necessary for the big moments at the end. Blomkamp's strengths as a visual artist are still commendable, but even they can't elevate a story that's simply been done too many times. 

Grade: C+/C

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