Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium will probably garner the exact same reaction that his runaway hit District 9 did a few years ago. Despite having different plots, it’s still a heavy handed, sometimes dreadfully forced and excessively violent sci-fi epic. This time, however, despite an even more unsubtle socio-political message at its heart, at least Elysium feels like an actual movie and not a gimmick based project that will abandon its gimmick entirely. It even screws up its second half in the exact same way, but at least this time it almost becomes forgivable.
Max (Matt Damon) lives in the parched, overpopulated, filthy hell hole that Los Angeles has become in 2154. All of the rich people on Earth have gone to an orbiting eco-system known as Elysium, where they can live happy, rich, and healthy lives with constantly renewable resources and unparalleled piece of mind. Max, an ex-con, works as an assembly line grunt for Armadyne, the multinational corporation who makes the robot working and police force that keeps the Earthbound proles in line.
Even before we begin to understand Max’s troubles, there’s already a problem with Blomkamp’s metaphor. It’s very clear that the South African filmmaker wants to do the same for illegal immigration to the US that he did for apartheid in his previous feature. Right out of the gate, Damon is recognized as the only good white person left in a world full of largely unemployed and entirely impoverished Latino-Americans. He speaks fluent Spanish, so he has to be an okay guy, right? He’s our hero and it’s almost the exact same idea that went into casting the white Sharito Copley as the saviour of District 9. Both men will undergo a crisis that will destroy their bodies over the course of the film, and they are doing it for the less fortunate. Blomkamp’s problem is that he’s so aggrandizing about his heroes he probably doesn’t fully realize he’s just creating the same “only a white male can save the human race” storyline. For all the accolades he got for “making a movie that meant something” with the incredibly overrated District 9, it’s hard to see how just doing the same thing over and over again can be seen as remotely revolutionary. While smart science fiction is actually about something, Blomkamp only ever really pays lip service to that notion.
Getting back to the story: Max gets into a work related accident that leaves him deathly ill with radiation poisoning that will kill him in five days for no other reason that to give the audience some sort of fake countdown that they think will mean something, but will really ultimately go nowhere and have no actual bearing or stakes. In an effort to get cured, Max goes to Spider (Wagner Moura), a crime lord who organizes illegal trips to Elysium. Not having money to pay his way, Spider hooks him up with a job: steal the secrets within the head of Armadyne’s chief-of-staff (William Fichtner) and bring the info back. Equipped with an exo-skeletal suit designed to make him stronger (that again, looks cool, does almost nothing whatsoever), the mission is botched because the businessman was actually carrying the means to overthrow Elysium’s current, benevolent President and put into power the more Rumsfeldian Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who’s more of a shoot first and let God sort it out kind of player.
Once the film gets its abundance of plots and subplots out of the way, Blomkamp simply abandons them as quickly as possible. Two movies into his career and Blomkamp’s increasingly limited playbook has become maddening. He has to know that he’s a better action director than he is a storyteller, which certainly accounts for the preachy (but in fairness, pretty spot on) political assessments of the first hour devolving into a cacophony of exploding bodies, shootouts, and hand to hand combat sequences. He only invests in his world building just enough so that the people who latch onto his message won’t ask any questions. Anyone who knows anything about how a narrative is actually put together will have a veritable field day picking apart just how illogical and arbitrary the second half of Elysium truly is. It honestly gets to a point where someone will ask a question, someone else says a variation of “Yup, I can do that,” and then they do it when you know that there’s no possible way this person has that knowledge. Or maybe they just jettisoned the part that would actually explain things. Either, or.
What makes the transgressions of Elysium somewhat more forgivable than Blomkamp’s previous and absolutely comparable effort, is that at least this one comes with a sense of over the top ridiculousness. Sometimes there’s a sense of earnestness that really gets in the way (a precocious child belonging to Max’s former love tells a story of hope and togetherness, the most ludicrous BASIC compute programming code ever dreamed up), but thanks to a heightened budget, Blomkamp finally gets to make the video game movie he’s probably always wanted to mount in the first place during the film’s admittedly entertaining and brainless second half. He’s honestly so much better at filmmaking when he simply isn’t trying to say anything at all. It’s kind of like listening to a drunk guy who’s kind of preachy, but on point, but then he keeps drinking and he just starts becoming entertaining. It doesn’t matter that he set up all these grand ideas he isn’t going to ever follow through on in an enlightened manner, he’s definitely ramping up to something even if it’s completely different from his starting point.
Damon kind of gets shafted here, since the film let’s Max start out as having a bit of charm and a sense of humour, but after twenty minutes he becomes the same, bland action hero bent on saving the world that we always get. His relationship to his childhood BFF and former girlfriend (Alice Braga) only exists to manipulate the audience’s heartstrings in the most basic ways possible, but she’s fine. Moura camps it up a bit with a limp and some crazy line delivery, but his character offers more questions than answers. As for Diego Luna, playing Max’s closest confidant, I can’t think of a single useful thing he did other than tag along everywhere, which is a shame since Luna is a great actor deserving of way more than this.
There’s a trio of villains on display here, but only one of them makes a great impression. Fichtner gets a chance to play the same fashionable, arrogant baddie he plays quite often, but this time without enough screen time to make more than a passing impression. Foster actually seems like she doesn’t even want to be there. It’s a performance akin to Edward Norton in The Italian Job: someone doing the bare minimum because they were somehow obligated to do it and they obviously aren’t taking direction from anyone behind the camera.
The biggest ace in the hole for Blomkamp is re-teaming with Copley and making him into the villain that best underlines the thematic point of the film. As an undercover mercenary under Delacourt’s employ named Kruger, Copley looks the spitting image of a young Chuck Norris, but with a menacing swagger and sneering contempt for human life. Using the visage of probably one of the most iconic, right wing action heroes of the past 50 years, this character not only allows Blomkamp to finally get his bloodlust on, but he also finds a way to playfully excuse it. It’s the only actually subversive point the film ever truly nails (next to Elysium itself looking oddly like the Mercedes-Benz logo floating above the Earth), and Copley plays up the sliminess for all its worth.
There’s a concerted effort being made every step of the way to keep Elysium interesting visually, but once again Blomkamp bites off far more than he can chew. Maybe at this point Blomkamp should set out and make two separate movies: a political drama and a Halo knock-off. I’m almost certain that on their own, they could be two completely effective films. He simply needs to stop marrying the concepts for a while.