Perhaps I should have known better than to pin all of my remaining summer 2013 hopes on a single film. Clearly I’ve bet on the wrong horse because Neil BlomKamp’s new film, Elysium is…not good.
Let’s bitch it out…(Spoilers ahoy)
While I’d hesitate to say that Elysium is this year’s Total Recall (a decent looking sci-fi summer action film featuring a topical storyline headlined by bankable stars), it’s nowhere near as bad as the Colin Farrell/Kate Beckinsale dud.
It is, however, far from the delightful surprise that Blomkamp’s first feature film, District 9, was. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but if I’m being honest very little in Elysium works. Let me count the ways:
- The main character is a dud: Damon’s Max is there – that’s about all I can say about the character. An attempt to give the character a backstory as a childhood dreamer fails to connect, which means Max is just a guy who gets sick and needs to get to the space station
- Magical energy pills: Oh yeah and Max can’t be killed. Even when he gets hit with a lethal dose of radiation and has five days to live, he simply needs to pop a few blue and white pills to get jacked up. If he gets stabbed? No problem. He’ll be back on his feet in a day, taking a beating, running around, getting tossed in the air and surviving shuttle crashes. I know that it’s an action film, but there’s clearly a lot of attention spent to realistic details in the cars, planes and Elysium’s structure, so the impractical stuff stands out even more as a result
- Villain #1 is a dud: I’m not sure who tricked Jodie Foster into portraying the villainous Delacourt this way, but she might want to consider legal action for defamation of character. If I didn’t know who Foster was, I’d be wondering why the French actress in the movie has so much difficulty with her English lines. The lady needs a dialogue coach (same goes for William Fichtner, though his dialogue is more stilted, whereas Foster simply seems like she doesn’t know how to speak)
- Villain #2 lacks motivation: Frequent Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley plays the hired muscle Kruger, but it’s never clear why he’s doing anything. I get that he’s meant to be a bit of a rabid dog, as though loosely outlining his details is all that’s necessary and further characterization would simply demystify him. Unfortunately this means that for long stretches of the film we’re just watching a crazy guy who’s crazy and wants power…and that’s boring
- It’s far too long: Clocking in at just under two hours, some serious edits need to be made because there simply isn’t enough to justify this run time. Why? Because…
- The plot is far too familiar: I’m unsure if the film is meant to be marketed at a mainstream audience who might not be familiar with dystopias, but holy hell there is nothing original here. It’s basically a rip-off of Johnny Mnemonic with a bit of Demolition Man thrown in. The rich are rich and being poor sucks. Everything is telegraphed miles in advance to the point that you barely even need to watch the film to anticipate where it’ll go. Do I need to tell you whether the sick child gets healed? Or if the stakes are reversed so that the poor gain access to Elysium? Those aren’t spoilers because you know this will come to pass even before the introductory text establishes the context. It’s that obvious
- The sick little girl: Oh god – why is this trope still around? Writers need to understand that introducing a goddamn sick child does not automatically make audiences more invested in the outcome. It’s actually just annoying because now we have to watch a kid get carted around for 90 minutes. The idea that sick kid and nurse mom would even be brought up to Elysium is ludicrous. The only reason this happens is for sentimental purposes and that’s cheap audience manipulation (which doesn’t work, FYI)
- Nurse mom: Who is she? Why she’s Max’s old flame (naturally) and she’s a nurse – so she can heal him (naturally) – and she’s a mom – that way we can justify having a kid around (naturally). Who is she beyond that? Um…
- The lack of robots: When they show up, they’re awesome (see below), but there are far too few. This is an especially glaring issue when Max escapes from captivity after the shuttle crashes on Elysium and everything goes to hell. Robots should have been all over the place and the only reason I can explain why they aren’t is a) they were too expensive to include in substantial numbers or (more likely) Blomkamp thinks it’s much more interesting to watch Damon and Copley throw each other around like mechanized dolls. Either way the lack of robots isn’t explained and their absence makes the film dumber as a result. It’s as though the opening scene on Elysium (in which Foster orders the capture and extradition of illegals) has been purposely forgotten. Isn’t that the entire purpose of this earlier scene: to establish why it’s dangerous to try and land on Elysium without authorization?
- The power reboot: I’m willing to accept that the space station is likely in orbit, so that’s why it doesn’t fall out of the sky when Spider (a frequently unintelligible Wagner Moura) reboots the system. But considering that Elysium has an open concept airspace that allows shuttles to simply fly in from space, there must be some kind of gravitational force field that keeps things in place. And that would probably require power. So shouldn’t Elysium’s inhabitants have gotten sucked into space or something during the blackout?
- It’s not fun: Some of these others issues are forgiveable if the film were a complete blast or mixed action and humour well or kept us on the edge of our seats. It’s none of those things. There’s no joy to be had watching this film. Not only is humour nearly absent, there’s no thrill in the action sequences. It’s deadly serious, but not exciting. There are explosions and gunfights and close-calls, but no energy. Like Max, it’s just kinda there…going through the motions
So does the film get anything right?
- Well, as mentioned the robots are pretty awesome looking. There aren’t enough of them, but when they appear they look good. It helps that the FX looks pretty seamless and they’re realistically designed for their purpose (which can be a problem in some sci-fi where functionality is dropped for the “cool visual” factor)
- The early parts of the film, where the world building is still occurring and before the film gets bogged down in repetitive fight scenes and kid antics, are kinda decent (Los Angeles is a slum! Jodie Foster speaks French at children’s birthday parties when she’s not blowing up shuttles of poor people! Matt Damon as a convict who swears a lot!) It’s all very novel
- The action sequence when William Fichtner’s plane gets taken down is arguably the high point of the film. Partially it’s because we haven’t realized there’s nothing behind Kruger yet, Max isn’t an indestructible superhero yet and that goddamn sick kid hasn’t really been introduced in a meaningful way. Plus this is the scene that demonstrates what robot body guards can do and Kruger shows off some fun technological weapons that make people go splat real good
- The visual aesthetics – the gritty look on Earth and Elysium – are well done. This is Mexico standing in for Los Angeles 2154 (read into that what you will – the film certainly does) and life looks appropriately hard and unforgiving. Elysium, on the other hand, looks like modern LA – lots of pools, bikinis and expensive desserts. It’s the shape of Elysium that’s more interesting, and clearly Blomkamp spent a lot of time going over the hows and whys of its construction. There’s a great attention to detail, though it would be nice if it didn’t feel like he was showing it off with repeated porn-y landscape crane shots
So overall I’m sad to say that Elysium is a big disappointment. There’s an interesting story in here somewhere, but what’s come out is predictable and obvious, full of dull/flat characters, plus it’s too long and it doesn’t contain the fun/wow/edge of your seat adrenaline factor. I’m not even sure I’d recommend it on video. It’s pretty much a pass…
Elysium is currently out in theatres