REVIEW: Elysium

Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)

Elysium (2013): Written and directed by Neil Blomkamp.  Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, and Wagner Moura.  Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.  Running time: 109 minutes.

ElysiumWhen a film is as patently ridiculous as Elysium is, one might expect a level of self-awareness, and more importantly, a sense of fun.  These were things that director Paul Verhoeven mined from trashy classics like Total Recall and Robocop.  Under the direction of Neil Blomkamp, however, the film lacks fun or even a compelling message.  It’s a shame coming from the director who brought us the solidly enjoyable (if overrated) sci-fi romp District 9.

We know we’re in trouble when we keep flashing back to the sun-flared memories of its protagonist, which look they belong in a Hallmark film, not a sci-fi epic.  Over and over we return, with nary a trace of irony, to a young boy is raised by nuns. He does not grow up into a blues singer (alas), but instead becomes Matt Damon.  Matt Damon’s Max dreams of reaching Elysium (a safe haven for the very rich) and leaving the overpopulated, dingy ol’ planet Earth behind.  Hmm, most of the world’s population as the have-nots, with a small percentage as the haves?  Now there couldn’t possibly be an allegory in that.

After sustaining massive radiation exposure on the job (occupational safety has gone the way of the Dodo by now), Damon knows he must to Elysium with their magic-healy-boxes at any cost.  Self-preservation is the ultimate goal.  Yes, the poster boy for Hollywood liberalism must convince us that his reasons are purely selfish.  Right.  So what changes him from survivalist to martyr?  A little girl tells him a story about a meerkat and a hippopotamus.  Where Damon is the hippo.  I kid you not.

Damon’s shtick isn’t unbearable, it’s just…bland.  We never believe he had a criminal background, and his nobility that “emerges” seems to have been there all the time.  He’s surrounded by good performers, but they’re all tasked with strange things to do.  Jodie Foster as the Elysium’s head of Defense affects an irksome robotic accent, because you know what rich people and robots both lack?  Feelings.  Sharlto Copley, so wonderful in District 9, arrives to vent all his character’s deranged mental illnesses on our heroes.  Sounds intimidating, but he’s about as intimidating as a Saturday morning cartoon villain, spouting cliché after cliche.

With such a limp foundation, Elysium at least somewhat compensates in its design.  The special effects, armor, weaponry, and cinematography all look authentic, adding a grittiness not matched by the narrative itself.  How disappointing that Blomkamp limits our aesthetic appreciation with manic editing, particularly in the action sequences.  Damon and his foes wear exo-skeletons, and coupled with “shaky-cam,” it means fights are about as coherent as the ones in Transformers.  Incredibly, Blomkamp never plays with the space afforded to him in his very premise, never utilizing the paradise of Elysium as a battleground, shirking it for sterile, boring corridors.  How original.

Speaking of originality, isn’t that a phrase often attributed to Blomkamp’s filmmaking?  Elysium settles into rhythms of narrative that are so familiar, it saps any tension from the proceedings.  In a frenzied scene in which Copley’s face is blown up by a grenade, it’s no problem at all!  Just stick him in a handy-dandy Elysium medicine box, and he’s good as new.  Never mind if his brain is sticking out of his skull.  

A film of this level requires a sure touch and sense of humor.  Blomkamp gives us a hint of the latter, but still expects us to ultimately take his film seriously.  And therein lies the problem.  If Blomkamp wants to continue making socially-conscious films, he needs to do one of two things: either go deeper into his dynamite premises, or embrace the silliness of shallow political allegory.

–The CineMaverick, 8/14/2013

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