ELYSIUM, Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to his wildly acclaimed and successful DISTRICT 9, has more scale, and with that scale comes more problems. It's bigger budgeted, with a much more recognizable cast and more money for visual effects. Sophomore efforts also undergo more scrutiny, which is to be expected. People would like to know if Blomkamp just got lucky the first time around, or whether he really is a new voice on the filmmaking scene and one worth paying attention to.
With ELYSIUM, the answer to that is a resounding maybe. There are moments in ELYSIUM that absolutely work - riveting emotional scenes as well as well staged action sequences. ELYSIUM manages to stay focused during much of its running time; unfortunately it loses that focus at integral moments. The themes of ELYSIUM are painted with such broad strokes that I imagine if Michael Moore had an opportunity to make a science fiction movie it would probably turn out a lot like this. I don't mind that about the movie; sometimes a sledgehammer is needed instead of a scalpel. With ELYSIUM, it often feels like Blomkamp is leaving nothing on the floor - who knows when Blomkamp will get the opportunity to use studio money to tell a story like this again. In that aspect, ELYSIUM can be quite subversive.
But it's the connective tissue that really counts in movies like this - explanations for character behavior or a simple rationale for events that occur, and it is here that Blomkamp sadly drops the ball. There are unexplained motivation changes in many of the characters, and it doesn't help that many of the actors speak in odd accents that make it difficult to follow at times, especially during fast-paced action sequences where the audience is already straining their attention span to follow what's going on. I especially found Jodie Foster's choices here strange - she has an affectation in her voice that seemed difficult to place and distracted whenever she was on screen. Her Delacourt is not a subtle character when she needed to be, and there aren't many subtle characters in ELYSIUM at all. Perhaps Blomkamp was feeling a bit pressed, or he wanted to make sure the audience got the point. It shows a strange lack of faith in what audiences can absorb, considering he seemed so adept at it with DISTRICT 9.
On Elysium, an orbiting space station above the Earth, the wealthy live lives of splendor and health. Machines fix every ailment, and Defense Minister Delacourt (Foster) makes sure that the citizens of Elysium never have to witness the squalor and desperation of the citizens of Earth. Her tactics, especially the use of an agent named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), are mostly under the books, but she will do anything to keep Elysium out of what she sees as chaos and disorder. On Earth, where the people are starving and destitute, Max De Costa (Matt Damon) is just trying to live his life in desolate Los Angeles. He’s been arrested a few times, but he’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow. He looks up at the sky and remembers a promise he made to a childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), that he would someday go to Elysium with her. But life intervened, and now Max is just another grunt working for corrupt businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner), building robots that police the populace.
When Max gets fatally irradiated during a workplace accident, his desperation to get to Elysium increases hundredfold. On Elysium, he can be cured and Max can save his own life. Max enlists the help of former mate in crime Spider (Wagner Moura) to get up there, but there’s a price. Spider wants Carlyle’s access codes, and for that Max, his friend Julio (Diego Luna), and some of Spider’s boys have to execute a daring heist on Carlyle’s shuttle. Things, of course, go badly, and due to some of Delacourt’s manipulations, Max gets possession of a program that could literally change everything – for himself, the people of Earth, and Elysium. He is hunted by Kruger, and desperately makes his way to Frey, a nurse who can help keep him alive to do what he needs to do. Frey has her own reasons to get to Elysium, and is willing to help Max as much as she can. But Kruger is in pursuit, and as Max’s time runs out, he and Frey must risk everything.
Damon is quite good; it’s an earnest performance, but he also has a physical presence on screen, especially when he’s decked out with an exoskeleton that Spider gives him to fight off any enemies. Braga is also good as a mother who still cares for Max after all these years, but wants more for herself and her daughter. Wagner Moura, so good in ELITE SQUAD, is terrific as the crime lord Spider, and gives my favorite performance of the movie. When the opportunity presents itself, Spider can be just as heroic as Max, and Moura plays it a bit close to the chest, but it pays off terrifically in ELYSIUM’s endgame.
Where a lot the problem lies in ELYSIUM, sadly, is with Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley. Foster’s Delacourt is a Cheneyesque character, with little subtlety to her motivations and reasoning. Foster wants to play Delacourt as a complicated villain, and I’m sure it read that way on the page, but it’s certainly not there on the screen. She also gives Delacourt an odd accent that I found very distracting, and I’m surprised that Foster, so successful in filling her characters with real emotion and purpose, can’t seem to find the center on her character here. She just comes across as a nefarious villain, just missing a mustache to twirl. Copley’s Kruger is given a rousing entrance and for much of ELYSIUM he’s almost as compelling as his character in DISTRICT 9. Copley is obviously enjoying playing the bad guy. But during a crucial plot moment, his character changes dramatically and I just couldn’t buy what the movie was selling. And, again, while I understand the accent and why Copley used it, during crucial sequences it was difficult to understand what Kruger was saying. I normally have no problem with accents, but these are characters speaking pretty important plot points while the movie crashes and booms all around them, and it made for difficult filmgoing.
I don’t lay the ELYSIUM's failures entirely at Copley or Foster’s feet, but at Neill Blomkamp’s. ELYSIUM falls under the same problems that too many movies this summer seem to suffer – it can’t stick the landing. There are stunning visuals in ELYSIUM, and Blomkamp’s real-world science fiction works wonders here, especially with the robots and the ships, which are impeccably designed. But everything’s so heavy-handed, and with that heavy-handedness comes predictability and a tendency to shove so many themes down the audience’s throat - this is about immigration! This is about healthcare! This is about class warfare! - that it all sticks going down. There’s no room for the audience to play with ELYSIUM’s world. It’s all overpowering and obvious. With DISTRICT 9, you felt the open spaces of the world Blomkamp created; in ELYSIUM it all feels on rails.
I admire the message of ELYSIUM very much, and for some audiences, the blunt nature of the movie may work. Some people, frankly, need to be hit in the face with ELYSIUM’s message. But I’m not reviewing the message, I’m reviewing the movie. I can honestly say I enjoyed ELYSIUM very much, but that’s the science fiction geek in me more than anything. I love when filmmakers of Neill Blomkamp’s caliber – and he’s still a very talented filmmaker, regardless of ELYSIUM’s failings – use the genre to tell great stories and show us new possibilities. It’s at the mad rush to the finish that Blomkamp overplays his hand. The problem in ELYSIUM isn’t with the big stuff, it’s the little stuff – the everyday stuff, the stuff that matters, the stuff that makes any film world feel genuine. Blomkamp has important things to say, dammit, and it’s a good message. It is important. And with that in mind, you don’t undermine that message with sloppy filmmaking. ELYSIUM is never not interesting, is never not visually engaging. The science fiction geek in me loved ELYSIUM. It’s the storytelling geek in me that found so much of it lacking.