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Elysium Review: It Could Be Better Up There
After dumping impoverished aliens on Johannesburg in District 9, Neill Blomkamp sends an impoverished Matt Damon up to the orbiting artificial utopia of Elysium in this cyberpunk action film.
Set in 2154, the wealthy live in luxury on Elysium, a space station orbiting the earth. The unlucky live on a beaten-down Earth, where we meet Damon’s character Max in the favelas of Los Angeles. He is an ex-con, apparently a legend, who now works in a factory of the same corporation responsible for most of the tech on Elysium. After an accident where he’s soaked with radiation, his time alive is limited, and the only way to prolong it is to use one of the advanced medical-bays on Elysium which can heal any disease and illness.
Blomkamp ties in Max’s attempt to save his life with the larger goal of saving Earth from misery. This will involve stealing Elysium’s tech from its merciless defense minister Jessica Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster and sporting a weird accent that’s proved a distraction for many viewers. Max has to undertake a mission for a criminal leader to buy passage on a smuggled craft that can take him to Elysium, rekindle a romance with a childhood friend (Alice Braga), and then make hard choices while Sharlto Copley’s demented mercenary Kruger chases him under orders from Delacourt.
The world presented is very simplistic, and there’s not much in the way of inserting grey into the black and white conflict going on. We’re meant to root for anyone stuck on Earth, and though Delacourt’s behaviour is questioned by the President who resides on Elysium, there’s no real attempt at developing anyone aboard the celestial paradise beyond a privileged collective that does not want to share its wealth and technology with the people below. As the viral advertising for the film states: It’s better up there.
It’s an obvious allusion to troubles in the present day, as the disparity between the rich and poor is massive, and the recent debate about national healthcare has been divisive to the population of the USA. Blomkamp is interested in contemporary issues in the context of sci-fi, which is how it should be, as it’s the genre’s greatest strength and tradition. However, though the world-building is impressive, it’s not comprehensive. But more about that later.
The CGI is as immersive and practical as it was in District 9. Blomkamp’s direction of special effects in his two features is something to be praised and taken note of. This is exactly how you handle CGI, as a storytelling aid, a flourish, and not a crutch to depend on. And he didn’t have to spend over $200 million dollars to do it, either. How he does this is an important question that other directors should be figuring out. If Blomkamp can provide us with futuristic vistas and action sequences like this, there’s no good reason most modern blockbusters need to spend such ridiculous amounts of money on their budgets.
Elysium, the space station, looks like a possible future. Reminiscent of literature’s imagined orbiting worlds. Its scientific feasibility is questionable, but it’s not completely in the realm of fantasy. Everything in Blomkamp’s two films looks like it could appear within a century. Much like how George Lucas’s original Star Wars introduced to cinema a more earthy aesthetic to the sci-fi genre, a stark contrast from fancy outfits and weird hairdos, Blomkamp is also attempting a rugged utilitarian comeback. All the hallmarks of cyberpunk are present, which wants to envision a dystopic world around the corner.
The action is not innovative, but the entertainment is derived of the technology employed by the characters. It’s reminiscent of the best moments of action video games, which is better than it reads in this sentence. It’s a natural evolution of cinematic action, to borrow tropes and clichés from video games, which in turn have borrowed the same from cinema. In the same way District 9’s moments recalled visual motifs and technological weaponry from the likes of Half-Life and its ilk, Blomkamp’s visual sensibilities are definitely influenced by all the awesome array of weaponry that gamers have been wielding for the last decade.
Max’s journey from humble bald-headed ex-con factory worker to possible saviour of Earth is a simple hero’s journey that forces him to continually move rather than sit around contemplating matters. With the inclusion of Kruger, the story proceeds into action and doesn’t let up until the end, which is good for momentum, but unfortunately as a result the characters are thinly sketched.
For a character who is meant to have such an interesting history, Damon’s portrayal is of an everyman figure who is friendly with people and kind to children. Damon is a great actor, but he doesn’t really have much to do here beyond act frustrated and impatient, which are not the most engaging qualities we want in a lead character. The criminal leader, who goes by the name Spider (Wagner Moura) acts like a cartoon with expository dialogue and lots of gesticulating. Foster needs a moustache so she can twirl it like the villain she is, with her weird accent and one dimensional attitude toward immigrants.
It is Copley, one of the most fascinating actors working today, who is the most memorable of the bunch. Playing an utterly ruthless merc who laughs at the despair in his wake, giggling while blowing people up around him, Copley is a magnetic presence. Kruger’s character journey unfortunately careens into a bizarre direction in the third act which makes little sense and is not set-up properly.
The resolution of the film highlights the gaps in the world-building, as the viewer will ultimately be left asking questions, then coming up with better answers than the film presents. The ending is wrapped up with a bow, too neatly, rather than be the inevitable result of earlier set-ups. Logically what occurs makes little sense in the grand scheme of things and you’re ultimately left asking questions that begin with “But why didn’t they just…?” and “Wouldn’t it have made more sense if…?”. So basically, the film is painted with too many broad-strokes, and though the best tales can be conveyed in simple fashion, rather than risk convolution, in this case it harms the film.
Blomkamp having another pass at the script would have ironed out these issues. It would have strengthened the characters beyond caricatures and archetypes, and reinforced the plot to audience scrutiny. But despite its flaws, the film at least tries to engage with the viewer’s brain, while creating an interesting world steeped in cyberpunk. It’s a welcome addition to the sci-fi genre, and brings back the kind of cyberpunk aesthetic that’s been lacking in the mainstream. As in, the kind that doesn’t shy away from David Cronenberg style body-horror, Wachowskis style hardware, and Paul Verhoeven style violence.
Sharlto Copley wielding swords, remote mines, exo-skeleton suits, mind-upload tech, shoulder-mounted RPG launchers firing into space. All this and more await you in Elysium. It’s not perfect, but after looking around the current sci-fi landscape littered with the corpses of dumb big-budget bloated blockbusters, it’s better up there.