Movie Review: Elysium

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Director Neill Blomkamp knocked his debut feature, District 9 out of the park. So much so that I doubt there’s a review of his new film Elysium that doesn’t mention District 9 in the first sentence. What might that indicate? It might indicate that Elysium does not live up to the expectations of Blomkamp’s first film. That’s not for lack of trying , though. Elysium grabs at the same political grandeur of its predecessor, but its script fails the rest, imbuing the film with illogical plot points, underdeveloped characters, and stilted dialog.

Earth is dying. Global warming and economic collapse ravaged the planet’s natural resources. Earth’s wealthiest escaped to a remote space station equipped with the amenities of the planet (clean air and water, Apple Stores, etc). It’s basically Wall-E world (does that count as Vacation reference) without President Fred Willard. Back on Earth, Max (Matt Damon), a line worker in a robot factory, falls a radiation chamber after some good, old fashioned employee abuse. Given five days to live, Max cuts a deal with a local hacker that will get him back to Elysium where a cure awaits.

So, what works? Elysium is a wildly entertaining movie. It moves at an incredibly breakneck pace, jumping from arc to arc, which then converge in a series of fantastically orchestrated action sequences and unceremonious moments of extreme violence. These parts hit hard, because Blomkamp holds his cards until the last possible moment before showing the gruesome results with speed of a sucker punch. Blomkamp moves faster than his audience, immersing them, like a video game, in big ideas and an expansive world, hoping they don’t recognize how shaky his script is.

Damon, Foster, and Copley all serve their parts well, committing entirely to their roles despite the script needing another draft. Lines like “I was going to heal your daughter, but now I’ve decided to not heal your daughter” and the menacing “Take these…two away!” seem unexpectedly clunky and unnecessary. Blomkamp never trusts his audience, spelling everything out for them. It’s indicative of a larger portion of the story, a portion that Blomkamp expects the audience not to buy.

The choice that Max must make is whether to save himself or the the rest of the world, particularly the daughter of his lifelong love Frey (Alice Braga). Blomkamp lays it on thick, slathering the film with flashbacks of Max and Frey as children dreaming of a life on Elysium. He compounds this with the threat of Krueger, a vicious mercenary who’s purpose in still confounds me. He’s evil incarnate, so how could we not side against him. The juxtaposition of Max and Frey’s sentimentality and the heartlessness of Krueger manipulates the audience into siding with Max and forgetting prime questions like “Why don’t they just build a medical bay on Earth? And if people sneaking on Elysium is such a problem, why don’t they just send one of their many robots and a medical bed to Earth?”

These questions don’t fit Blomkamp’s allegory. They mess with his interests in immigration and healthcare reform. However, despite his attempts to make it a sentimental conclusion, Max’s journey detaches from the audience because of the scale of the film, the amount of characters, and the unclear motivations of them. District 9, by comparison, kept things remarkably simple and allowed the audience to feel what oppression is like. This movie simply tells you about it, though, doesn’t feel particularly confident in that explanation.

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