Starring: Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum), Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), Sharlto Copley (District 9), Alice Braga (Predators), William Fichtner (Drive Angry)
Writer/Director: Neill Blomkamp (District 9)
Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes
Release Date: 9 August (US), 21 August (UK)
District 9 was a revolutionary film back when it came out in 2009. It showed that films could be action-packed and still be socially relevant. It did for $30 million what most Hollywood movies would spend $100 million dollars on and get the same results. And it was one of the few sci-fi films to receive major critical acclaim, getting an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in the process. Neill Blomkamp suddenly became a figure to watch, and now he’s back with his sophomore effort Elysium. Has the man struck gold twice, or is he a one-trick pony?
The plot of Elysium is basic but structurally sound, taking its time setting up the world and our protagonist Max (Damon). Much like District 9, this is a film with a message relevant to problems in society today. However, I felt the allegories were much more blatant here; I sometimes felt like they were slamming my head against the wall shouting “DO YOU GET IT?” Yes, I do get it. Now please just let me watch the movie. But other than that and an over-reliance on flashbacks to things we’ve already seen, this is a well-paced ride with lots of thrilling action set pieces and an interesting world to explore. I just wish the film had a bit more of a sense of humour to balance the constant dour tone the movie mostly follows. It isn’t pessimistic; quite the opposite in fact. But for a film that’s about uniting humanity and creating a better world for everyone, the film sometimes lacks a soul.
Matt Damon is a really good actor, and can pull off almost anything. He serves the role of Max perfectly well, but he doesn’t always have the juiciest of material to work with. Apart from some early wisecracks and some sentimentality, Max never seems like a fully rounded character; that is hardly Damon’s fault but it does reflect upon him. Jodie Foster is usually a fine actress, but for some reasons she’s decided to go for some strange Anglo-French accent that no one else has; it’s off-putting and unnecessary. Alice Braga is a pretty underrated actress, and she puts in a good performance here too. The ever-awesome William Fichtner makes an appearance, doing his usual smarmy douche performance that never seems to get old. But the real scene-stealer here is Sharlto Copley as the villainous Kruger. He’s the only one who seems to be having a lot of fun with the material, creating a performance that could easily come from an 80’s action movie but he still manages to remain threatening and engaging. It really shows how versatile an actor Copley is, and he’s a talent that deserves a lot more attention than he is currently getting.
Blomkamp has a particularly great talent for creating conceivable futures. The design and technology of everything in Elysium feels futuristic and cool, but stays grounded enough in reality that you can accept it. For the most part anyway. For a film that takes place over 100 years in the future, I found it odd that everyone’s computers ran on DOS for some reason and that all the Earth computers look like they were built in 1997; I know they’re trying to make the world look rundown, but most of their technology looks dated even by today’s standards. Blomkamp’s other fascination, blowing people up, also makes a welcome return for some truly inventive kills. The cinematography is beautiful when it shows off the scenery, but shaky-cam is too prevalent during action beats and, combined with some choppy editing, can create a nauseating effect. I get they want to make the film seem more gritty and raw (there’s even one point where they’ve blatantly stabilized a shot in post and don’t even bother to hide it), but I found it more distracting than invigorating. The special effects look amazing; probably some of the best I’ve seen in a while. I won’t say too much, but there is one particularly cool effects moment involving Sharlto Copley’s face that is as fascinating as it is revolting. The score is mostly pretty good, but again like District 9 it uses way too much poetic choir music to ram home the point that “this scene is emotional”.
I know it may seem like I’ve been s***ing on this movie, but I’m not. I enjoyed Elysium a lot throughout and do think it’s a much more interesting and smarter film than most pictures that Hollywood are putting out these days. It’s never dull, it keeps a good pace, and the amount of effort that has gone into designing this world is staggering. But the more I though about and the more problems I found I had, I couldn’t call this movie great. I know I shouldn’t be comparing it to District 9 so much, but they are so similar in many ways that they could easily take place in the same universe. Neill Blomkamp is still one of the most interesting talents we have, and he has great potential to do some amazing things. But for this, I felt he too often fell back on many of his old tricks and just ramped them up. I’m fine with films with strong messages, but it should never get in the way of what’s important. I’m just worried that if he continues on this route, he could go the way of Andrew Niccol.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10