Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Elysium" Review, or How to Blow a Good Concept in 1 Hour and 50 Minutes

Like the last competitor in a marathon, Elysium crosses the finish line of summer a bloated, sluggish and disappointing mess. It's a film with a complex, timely and vitally important issue at its heart, namely the growing chasm between the wealthy and every one else. The problem lies in writer-director Neill Blomkamp's handling of this issue, an approach that is so shallow that we never get much beyond "rich people are bad and why can't we be fair to everybody".

This normally wouldn't be enough to sink a movie. There's been a lot of very good science fiction films that examine complex issues in a superficial way. Hell, most of Star Trek is celebrated for that very approach. But where those other films succeed and Elysium fails is that the story itself is sloppy, filled with plot holes and contrivances and populated by two-dimensional and cliched characters.

In the future presented by the film, Earth has become vastly overpopulated, the ecosystem destroyed by pollution and over-consumption of resources. The wealthy have fled to an immense orbiting space station called Elysium, where they live in splendor and have access to an array of marvels, including medical capsules that can cure you of any illness or defect. The remainder of humanity live in squalor on Earth. The film seems to suggest that the people live in some sort of totalitarian police-state, controlled, I guess, by the people on Elysium. It's not really clear.

Matt Damon plays Max, a regular Joe who is trying to get by, dreaming a lifelong fantasy of someday making up to Elysium. Max works on a robot assembly line after being released from prison for car theft, assault with a deadly weapon and other felonies. He's trying to go straight, but the unfair dead-end society he lives in doesn't make things easy, and when his boss orders him to perform a dangerous task at work or lose his job, he finds himself blasted with a lethal dose of radiation. Max now has only five days to live, and he knows that the medical beds on Elysium are his only option. He agrees to take on a dangerous mission to steal Elysium computer codes that would allow the system on the station to be rewritten, knowing he'd have to get on board the station in the process, giving him access to the tech that can save him. With his radiation sickness making it difficult to function, Max gets a cybernetic exo-skeleton grafted onto his body to keep him going, which can also store the data they steal in Max's brain.

Hunted by both Elysium's chief of security (Jodie Foster) and an improbably bat-shit insane secret agent (Sharlto Copley), Max has to find a way onto the space station and a way to get the data out of his head and into Elysium's system. He also has to find a way to help the dying daughter of the woman he loves (Alice Braga).

All of this sounds really good, but it's immediately hampered by hackneyed dialogue and tedious flashbacks that lack any subtlety. Blomkamp keeps hammering his points home with a sledgehammer, and the resulting dialogue lands largely with a thud. There are little moments where it lifts off, and these mostly come from scenes where the characters are allowed to simply exist in the world without commenting on it. Damon is the most successful at elevating the material, and any minute depth his character shows is largely down to the actor's innate charisma. Everyone else feels like a device rather than a person.

Jodie Foster really surprised me with perhaps her worst performance ever. She is depicted as an ice-cold, ruthlessly ambitious villain, and that's all there is to her. She functions as the heartless representative of Elysium society, and after she has a few scenes showing that, she has literally nothing left to offer. Copley's performance as the psychotic secret agent Kruger may be flashier, but it's just as one-dimensional. If you've ever wondered what a secret agent would be like if they hired schizophrenic delusional homeless people, then look no farther than Kruger. That sounds interesting, I'll admit, but the relentless mania with no other shading to the performance quickly becomes boring. Wesley Snipes was more interesting in Demolition Man, for God's sake.

Finally, there are numerous moments in the film that reek of sloppy storytelling. Like how Elysium seems to have no defence systems whatsoever, even though they seem to be bombarded by refugee ships. Foster has to get Kruger to shoot them down from Earth. There's no system in place for this? It's one crazy guy with a rocket launcher? And when one ship does get through, the refugees are all apprehended in about ten minutes and sent back to Earth. So why the need to kill them? And does everyone on Elysium just go along with killing tons of poverty stricken people when they can just send them back? In the opening act of the film, Blomkamp shows that both Earth and the Elysium citizens are watched over by robots. Robot cops, robot bodyguards, robot servants, etc. Damon works in a robot factory. They're kind of a big part of things. But when it comes to the climax, and all kinds of shit is going down on Elysium, do we see any robots? Nope. People getting killed all over the place, intruders walking around shooting up the joint, and none of these previously omnipresent guards show up until everything has been resolved.

So, yeah, Elysium is just lazy. With just a little work to tighten up the characters and a touch of effort to sharpen the glaring problems with the plotting, we could have had a science fiction film as great as Blomkamp's previous film District 9. Instead we're left with a vision of the future that isn't as good as 1975's Rollerball. At least it's not as bad as 2002's Rollerball.

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