Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Elysium (Alex's Take)

I’m glad movies like Elysium exist. In a lot of ways, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s second feature crystallizes a concept that is at once plainly obvious and yet always in need of more analytical thought: Making a good movie is god damn hard, man.

I’m sure Blomkamp had this all mapped out nicely in his head. He crafted a simple enough premise, populated his movie with competent actors, and relied heavily on his unmatched sense of world-building and specific brand of hyper-realistic grimy violence to make all the movie’s emotional beats connect at a visceral level. The Xs and Os are in place, but the execution is troublesome and at times outright infuriating.

Elysium opens with a cast of expository paragraphs set over a steaming, dystopic hellhole that we come to learn is Los Angeles in the year 2154. After decades of pollution, Earth has finally caved in on itself, with the majority of the population decimated by crippling disease and slum-like living conditions. Each day is its own battle to see the next sunrise.

Unless, of course, you were one of the wealthy few who managed to get out while the getting was good and score some beachfront property on Elysium, an Edenesque space station established by the 22nd century One Percenters. While the unwashed masses scrape and claw for rudimentary medical treatment in filthy crowded hospitals, the idyllic homes on Elysium come equipped with cure-all medical capsules that can eradicate cancer cells, mend broken legs and cure any other malady in a matter of seconds.

Matt Damon stars as Max, a reformed thief who, like most Earth-dwellers, has longed to make it to Elysium since he was a boy. That desire is given even more impetus when he is exposed to a lethal blast of radiation at his assembly line job and given five days to live. With the cure just a tanning bed away, Max agrees to do a bit of dirty work for a twitchy underworld crook named Spider who specializes in smuggling illegals to Elysium.

And if that were the extent of the movie’s aims, Elysium might be a success. Unfortunately, Blomkamp cooks up a laborious subplot of political intrigue that feels woefully out of place. This comes into play via Delacourt, Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, played with befuddling stuffiness by Jodie Foster, who is in a completely different movie than any other person in the picture.
Delacourt is tasked with keeping Elysium safe from the illegals, but the station’s leadership is not entirely on board with her methods, which involve ruthless mercenaries like Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley. Delacourt aims to stage a coup, which involves rebooting Elysium’s entire mainframe. To do that, she tasks slimy industrialist Carlyle (a perfect William Fichtner, as if there were any other kind of William Fichtner) with downloading the reboot program into his head.

Remember that bit of dirty work Max agreed to take on? Well, it involves targeting an Elysium agent working on Earth and downloading precious information from their heads: bank codes or something valuable? Anyway, they of course target Carlyle, who is carrying the entire Elysium reboot plan. Carlyle also happens to be Max’s boss. Lots of elementary happy accidents in this one, gang.

As you might expect, Max finds himself smack in the middle of a power struggle among the ruling class, as if the crippling radiation coursing through his body and a Race Against Time wasn’t enough of a drag.

And that is really the problem with Elysium. Not content to tell a simple story of one man’s journey to better his station, Blomkamp gums up the works with overly complex hullabaloo that would be defensible if it weren’t so damn boring.

Chief among Elysium’s sins is the stock it puts in Max’s relationship with a woman named Frey, his friend from childhood whom he promised to take Elysium one day. Frey grows up to become an ER nurse and the pair are reunited when Max sustains an injury. Not the radiation injury, a different one. I’m hoping there’s a featurette on the Elysium Blu-ray called “Matt Damon gets the ever-loving shit kicked out of him for 100 minutes.” It would be appropriate.
Again, the movie’s intentions are noble. Max feels beholden to Frey and eventually to her young daughter, who is fighting for her life against leukemia. But the entire relationship resonates as a studio note, mostly because Damon and Alice Braga, who plays Frey, display a lack of chemistry and interest that is really startling. There were times I sincerely thought that they had just finished accusing one another about hogging all the scones at the catering table seconds before Blomkamp yelled action.

The movie is still more than a gigantic misstep. As mentioned up top, just two features in, Blomkamp has already proven himself a master of creating landscapes and environments that don’t feel like sets. I feel like Los Angeles 2154 existed before someone decided to point a camera at it and continues to exist after shots ended.

The action setpieces are also to be applauded. Max’s initial siege on Carlyle is thrilling and not overly ornate. Max and his team of ruffians shoot down Carlyle’ shuttle on its way up to stage the Elysium coup and they bear down on him in a sweaty, dirty guerilla warfare-like fashion that feels dangerous and thrilling.

Blomkamp is also really damn good at putting robots on screen. Whether they are servants on Elysium or foot soldiers on Earth, Blomkamp’s droids don’t feel like effects. When one of them punches Damon, you feel it. They move like people, swiftly and dangerously, but still carrying the stilted pace of mechanical precision and perfection. It’s a tough balance, and he strikes it well.

The gem of the movie is Copley, whose turn as the menacing and maniacal Kruger is all the more impressive because we were introduced to him in Blomkamp’s first feature, District 9, as the dweeby bureaucrat Wikus. He turns a complete 180 in Elysium, still channeling his unique goofy energy not for laughs, but instead as a conduit for Kruger’s unhinged psyche and utter unpredictability. Kruger is used a tool to enable some of the movie’s annoying habits (he becomes overly involved in the Elysium power struggle and abducts Frey and her daughter for no good reason other than it would be helpful if they were up there for the end of the movie), but that’s hardly the fault of Copley, who is a joy to watch.
Elysium is to be commended for taking chances, like fitting its star with a bulky exoskeleton to offset the damage to his body in the radiation accident. You’ve seen it in all the trailers, but Damon has that gizmo on him for more than half the movie, and that choice indicates a real trust in the film’s production/costume design. Imagine how bad this movie goes if that whole piece looks ridiculous or unworkable.

Finally, it pains me to knock Blomkamp down a peg, albeit with a caveat. He’s only two movies into his career and this could all be rendered moot if he branches out a little, but I’m worried that the conceit of movies like District 9 and Elysium will quickly become his “thing”: Sci-fi actioners that carry an Important and Topical Message That Resonates In Our Confusing and Immediately Important Modern Times.

This would be fine if Blomkamp brought any nuance or remotely dynamic thought to these topics he so boldly approaches in this new and innovative fashion. I thought District 9 was cool, just like everyone else, but for all its ambitions to shed light on the atrocities of apartheid, did you really come away from that movie thinking anything other than “Man, apartheid is bad.” And didn’t you think that before?

Similarly, Elysium aims to condemn the widening economic gulf between the world’s haves and have-nots, with a meditation on immigration policy tossed in as a garnish. I think it’s really admirable that the movie tries to be ABOUT something, which is more than can be said for a wide swath of multiplex fare, but I hope that Blomkamp doesn’t continue down this path of clumsily affixing the important social issues of the day with his gritty sci-fi pastiche.

Because I really like his gritty sci-fi pastiche.


  1. Saw this yesterday and after sitting with it for a day I think your review really nails it for me. I loved the look, I loved the future tech (those robots are the best) and the world(s) he created and I like most of the performances, but it is often tedious and downright boring (something District 9 never is), Jodi Foster is the worst and I never buy that there is any depth to Max and Frey's relationship (Hey, you're back, haven't seen you in years, what an amazing coincidence we're meeting now, wanna go for coffee? No. Please? No. Pretty please? Fuck, fine then.), and the plot far too often relies on coincidence. About the only thing I might disagree with you on, and I'm feeling flexible on this so that might change on a future viewing, is that Copley's character got on my fooking nerves and to me felt a little over-the-top. But I'm open to the idea that I just have to get over the fact he's not Wicus, who I loved.

    SPOILER AHEAD!!! Maybe not a spoiler, because I saw the bitter-sweet ending coming a mile away, especially once the two "missions" scenario was set up (i.e. save Max and save the little girl). It was the same in District 9 (i.e. save Chris Johnson and save Wicus) and I started thinking early on that, also like D9, only one of those missions would actually be accomplished. I hope this doesn't become another of Blomkamp's "things".

    Great review, Alex - I was thinking Elysium might be the subject of this week's podcast, but after watching it I don't think it's quite deserving of one. It is worthy of discussion on the site though so I'm glad you wrote this!

  2. I think I generally agree with your points about the the movie itself, Blomkamp, and District 9; Elysium didn't feel as put-together as his first movie, although I still mostly liked it.

    Also, small niggling point about the audio, I felt like a lot of the dialogue from a few of the characters was indecipherable.

  3. Mark, that small niggling point is spot-on (spot-Ahn? I'm a hack). I cut some of that stuff from my review because it was too long and also because I thought I might come off as racist or something, but it is a real problem.

    Particularly when Spider is going ten million miles an hour explaining the idea of the mind heist in conjunction with how he will get around Elysium's security measures. For what it's worth, there seemed to be a general concurrence of that in my theater.

    1. Mssr. Lawson - It's a little unfortunate too, because I liked Wagner Moura in the movie. I guess it shouldn't be a big deal because the dialogue isn't necessarily a draw (nor is it a negative) in this.

      Like you said, really love the tech that Blomkamp creates; it's up there with Ridley Scott's stuff.

    2. Alex, great review! I agree with just about everything you said aside from Sharlto Copley who is part of the biggest problem I had with the movie - it's aggressively unpleasant. Not that there's anything wrong with a movie delving into unpleasantness (if there's a worthwhile takeaway) but I wanted to escape this movie. I found it suffocating in the same way I felt World War Z and Man of Steel to be. Hopefully this is just a minor misstep for Blomkamp who I think is very talented.

    3. Adam, I totally understand how one could be turned off by Copley's sheer brutality and repugnance, but that was honestly part of his appeal for me, because I am a sick individual.

      But seriously, I was more in awe of his sheer range, given how the world came to know him in D9.

  4. Saw this last Sep. 9 and it immediately reminded me of what Patrick said in 2010 about "The Town": this is about the perfect middle-of-the-road good movie that Hollywood should strive to at least achieve, and which most movies released fall way below. No, it wasn't "District 9" good but it was competently made, entertaining at parts (particulary Copley's take on Kruger; I didn't even know it was Sharlito playing the part until the credits rolled) and it made me think. Yes, no chemistry whatsoever between Alic Braga and Matt Damon, but that helped the bittersweet ending achieve a slightly higher pathos than it deserved. Jodie Foster doesn't give a bad performance as much as one in a different movie than the one she's in (shocked that Max and Delacourt don't have a scene together, since the whole movie seemed to be building up to that) and Blomkamp sure knows how to shoot and portray robots and future worlds.

    Not a sophomore slump as much as a bump in the road for the director of one of my favorite movies of 2009.