Friday, September 20, 2013

Film Review - Elysium

2013 has been a crowded year for science fiction. In the months before heavyweights like Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel the genre had already put on a good showing and in the summer season of blockbusters there has been a consistent slew of quality sci-fi fare. In terms of grand genre concepts and fast paced explosive action, Elysium keeps pace with its simpler, popcorn-movie peers of the year such as Pacific Rim and After Earth. What sets Elysium apart is its palpable heart and topical conscious. 

Elysium is director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore effort. His first film, District 9, is by any account one of the most successful science fiction films ever made. District 9 netted nearly five times its meager production budget at the box office and was nominated for Best Picture, a nearly unprecedented accomplishment for the genre. While it may not quite live up to the pedigree set by District 9, Elysium is a worthy follow up and a solid film in its own right. 

There are some noteworthy similarities between the two films. Like District 9, Elysium is set in a dystopian future full of muddy colors and rough textures. There is a definite visual theme shared by the films that I imagine will become as much of a trademark look for Blomkamp as overly saturated colors are for Tim Burton. The films also share the inclusion of not so subtle (some may say overtly political) social messages. District 9 was obviously about immigration and Elysium is just as clearly about wealth inequality and healthcare. 

Elysium is more of a standard action film than District 9. Bone crunching brawls and speedy chases are staples from the outset in the 109-minute running time. As Elysium is set far in the future it features much more sci-fi eye candy wonder than District 9. Elysium itself, a technological utopia on which the privileged live in a paradise of indulgence, is especially spectacular. 

In Elysium it is the year 2154 and social standing has broken down into two extremes: the haves, who live glamorous lives on the magnificent space station Elysium, and the have-nots, who live in squalor, filth, and poverty on the ravaged Earth. Disease and oppression are part of everyday life on Earth while Elysium is essentially the Hamptons in space. After undergoing a potentially fatal accident, Matt Damon’s character Max Da Costa concocts a plan to infiltrate Elysium in order to save his life. Along the way he will learn that he is destined to play a bigger role in the timeless class conflict. 

It has been six years since The Bourne Ultimatum and since Matt Damon has led an action movie on this scale and budget. Luckily he hasn’t missed a beat. In a year crammed full of personality driven genre films (World War Z with Brad Pitt and Oblivion with Tom Cruise just to name a few), Matt Damon puts forth what might be the action-star performance of the year so far. 

Unfortunately the rest of the lifeless cast doesn’t live up to Damon’s lead. Jodie Foster in particular is disappointing and lackluster. Maybe she just nailed the cold, emotionless bureaucrat  role a little too well but her performance is boring, uninspired, and all around snooze worthy. Nobody else in the cast is especially memorable either. 

Elysium’s real problem is its third act in which the plot becomes bumpy and disjointed. A little more than halfway through the film the antagonists suddenly switch from the wealthy, powerful elite to a band of radical extremist terrorists. It almost works, as it puts Matt Damon and those suffering on Earth in a moderate role (a clear political parallel) and thus stresses the danger of the extremes on either side of them. However instead of being an explosive twist the change is muddled and incoherent. Consequentially I was left feeling confused and apathetic at precisely the time I should have been most engaged and invested. It’s a textbook mistake and while it doesn’t ruin the entire film it certainly significantly drags it down. 

Elysium was probably never going to live up to the critical success of District 9. That kind of official recognition and broad acceptance is always lightning in a bottle and for Blomkamp to be able to repeat it in the science fiction genre always seemed like a bit of a stretch. Elysium is bigger, louder, and a little stupider than District 9 and while it doesn’t quite match up to its predecessor it is a terrific follow up for the young Mr. Blomkamp.  Science fiction could only be so lucky to have this bright, promising talent stay within its tent poles for a few more films. 

Grade: B

Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk/Page