Having seen the excellent District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up movie Elysium was always going to be a must-see. They used to talk about that ‘difficult second album’, but the same goes for a director’s second movie. My anticipation was mounting ever since hearing about it, but walking out of the cinema having seen it, I was quite disappointed, but couldn’t immediately say why.
So I had to write about it to get it all straight in my head. Be warned – here be spoilers…
In summary, it is 2154 and Elysium is a huge habitat orbiting the Earth to which the mega-rich of the planet have moved, to escape from the overcrowded and hopelessly grim Earth, which has essentially become a massive ghetto, while the rich have plenty of room, food, citizenship and crucially – universal health-care. Damon’s character Max accidentally is exposed to a huge dose of radiation at work and his employer refuses to help him, so having little chance of getting any help on Earth, he decides he needs to get to Elysium to be healed. To do this he needs to get there via illegal means, as Elysium lets no one in but the super-rich and they quite violently guard their ‘airspace’ from those who are not ‘citizens’. He eventually gets there, but not after bloodshed and a lot of general mayhem, which results in everyone on Earth being granted citizenship of Elysium and therefore eligible for the same level of affordable health-care as those on the habitat. Here’s the trailer so those of you who haven’t seen it can get a feel for it:
Before getting to the negative aspects, let’s step back and go through what did work well for the movie:
1. As with District 9, the computer visuals were done by Peter Jackson’s company Weta Digital. They created truly breath-taking visuals of the orbiting habitat (both through the atmosphere and in outer space as well). The robotic police officers, the flying vehicles and the technology were also flawlessly animated. The legendary Syd Mead was contracted to help with many of the designs in Elysium and it paid off as everything looks functional yet used if that makes sense.
2. Of all the performances in Elysium, it is Sharlto Copley’s Kruger that steals the show in every scene. Kruger is a covert mercenary who does Delacourt’s (Jodie Foster) dirty work on Earth. He seems to revel in absolute chaos and doesn’t give a damn about anything – making him the most dangerous type of mercenary.
3. While District 9 dealt with racism, Elysium deals allegorically with the haves and have-nots. Though having spent his earlier years in South Africa, director Neil Blomkamp has spent much of his life in Canada which has a radically different approach to healthcare compared to it’s big neighbour the United States (i.e. Health-care is universal in Canada but exorbitantly expensive in the US). Clearly Blomkamp is a liberal humanist (not that that’s a bad thing).
Now for the negative aspects (mainly the character arcs) which made this particular viewer scratch his head:
- Damon’s character Max is a mild-mannered former criminal who is always being harrassed (for that reason) by the police and his parole officer (another automaton – think Johnny-Cab robot from Total Recall) . After being irradiated in a workplace accident, he needs to get to Elysium to be cured. However, by the end of the movie he has transformed into a freedom fighter, fighting for free medical care for all humans on Earth by uploading the source code for Elysium, overwriting the existing code and making all humans on Earth citizens of Elysium, so the robot doctors will cure everyone. Damon is a reliable actor, but I’m not convinced he was the ideal choice here. Max’s character really needed to be darker. More suitable options might have been Christian Bale or perhaps Timothy Olyphant, to give Max more gravitas and a sense of struggle. I tried and failed during the movie NOT to say he words ‘Matt Damon’ (á la ‘Team America’) in my head.
- Foster’s Delacourt (Elysium’s head of security) is clearly looking for any reason to overthrown the Elysium government for her own reasons (which are never clarified properly) before Kruger abruptly kills her. It’s like Blomkamp got bored with her character and devised a quick way to remove her from the script.
- Kruger is clearly insane and doesn’t take it well when he is released from service (by the President) only to be quietly re-instated by Delacourt. He kills her after she berates him out for damaging Elysium property (um, a garden and a few potted plants) and he quite non-chalantly opens her carotid artery. Then he decides that with her gone and the President in lock-down (at Delacourt’s order after Kruger’s ship crash lands) that Elysium needs a good, strong ruler, namely himself. It feels odd to me that he goes from a hired thug to staging a coup d’état mere minutes after Delacourt’s previous coup d’état. It just seems an odd character transformation to me but I suppose he’s just an opportunist at the end of the day.
- Spider – Max’s former crime boss goes from being a violent, heartless black marketeer to a freedom fighter (like Max), opening all the doors on the habitat so Max can upload the new code and give everyone citizenship. He is downgraded during the course of his screen time from a dangerous and violent crime lord and almost becomes likeable by the end. FAIL.
- Flashbacks can be effective but should be used sparingly. There were too many of them here, showing Max and Frey growing up together rather than making them the core of the story from the outset. Frey and her sick daughter were a sideline which just muddied the main thrust of the movie and could have been dropped or further minimized.
- My biggest personal pet peeve – far too little time inside Elysium – over 80% of the movie was set on Earth. I wanted to see the glory of what humanity can achieve in space but only got to see a few exterior shots of the habitat and a lot of pretty dull corridors and rooms inside it. Even the security control room seemed boring and reminded me of the bride of the Liberator in Blake’s 7. Kubrick would have done it better justice. Oh wait, he already did…
- Considering that in the last century or so mankind has learned how to fly, landed on the moon and many other wonders, the technology of Elysium didn’t seem particularly advanced. Sure, cancer can be cured in a few moments using non-invasive and non-chemical means, but nothing else stood out as credible for a future 140 years from now. Only Kruger’s hand-held shield seemed to be sufficiently in advance of modern technology, though it looked like something nicked from the Gungans on Naboo (geddit?).
- Max gets outfitted with a wetware exoskeleton whose aim is aim is twofold – as he is seriously weak from his lethal dose of radiation it will allow him to stay up and walking but it also is meant to help him fight. He does indeed fight Kruger and a host of other baddies, but the exoskeleton never seems to provide him with any major advantage, other than acting as a shield against Kruger’s sword. It seems somehow wasted.
- Delacourt’s bizarre English accent. Jodie Foster is one of my favourite actresses and speaks great French (see her French-speaking turn in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement”), so why even when her name sounds French was she doing a sadly mediocre English accent? Copley’s Kruger got to keep his South African accent, so why didn’t she just stick with her American accent? Weirdness.
- While I really like Blomkamp’s gritty futures and feel a certain cold violence towards Michael Bay’s formulaic “let’s put a joke…THERE” approach, they could have put in a few laughs here and there. Even District 9 made us smile a bit, usually when a human or alien spontaneously disintegrated in a hilariously grisly way (seriously).
- After Clinton Shorter’s wonderfully evocative African music for District 9, the music for Elysium was disappointing. I cannot recall any memorable theme or motif used by composer Ryan Amon which is a shame because every movie should have you humming its main theme as you leave the cinema. Movie music should soar and “be a cast member” as John William’s once said of his earlier Star Wars soundtracks. It took me weeks to get the main theme of Could Atlas out of my head after leaving the cinema!
So after all that, it might sound odd for me to say that I still quite enjoyed Elysium for it’s pros, but too many cons meant that it was a little disappointing. As he is still a rookie director, I can only hope that the inconsistencies are down to studio interference or money issues, and that a director’s cut version will come out down the road, cleaning up many of the odd character progressions and the early culling of a character here and there.
Again for me Elysium still works overall. Let’s hope Blomkamp hasn’t ‘Shyamalanned’ already and that his best work is yet to come.