I was very excited to see the new Neill Blomkamp film Elysium from the first time I saw a trailer. It looked like someone was doing a realistic space epic, pulling in all sorts of SF tropes (Ringworld anyone?) and that someone was the same guy who gave us the incredibly impressive District 9 in his debut.
Shame his sophomore effort is a shallow, almost pointless retread of similar territory albeit with a bigger budget and impressive cast.
To be fair, the visuals are wonderful. The Elysium space habitat is remarkable, especially floating in the day sky like a ghost moon, but despite what James Cameron might say, visuals do not a movie make. The list of impressively rendered other worlds (past, present or future) is long, but without a good solid story to back it up, it’s just so much eye candy. And I think this is why I was so disappointed in Elysium.
I liked District 9 a whole lot. Here was a film making a subtle point about apartheid using integrated effects, designed to look rough so we could believe in the world created and understand the point without ham-fistedly hitting us over the head (I had a little bit of an issue with the film’s timeline, but that’s another story). In Elysium, Blomkamp is striking the same note he did before, with far less effect. Yes, we understand there’s a difference between the haves and the have-nots but in this barely conceived world, there is no middle ground. You’re either exceedingly rich or mind-numbingly poor. This has always been my problem with cyberpunk and other near future stories (this one takes place about 140 years from now) – there’s no middle class. The first world will always need middle management. It will always need suburbs. I know it’s not nearly as sexy as the uber-rich or as shocking as the devastation of the slums, but it’s an economic need. It’s even there in the film in the form of the plant manager and the main character, Max’s love interest, Frey. In fact, it’s part of her back story… she “gets out” and becomes a nurse, she lives in an actual house in an actual neighborhood, but it’s completely ignored in the overview.
So Max is a troubled youth and grows up to be an ex-felon who looks a lot like Matt Damon. He’s trying to go straight, but of course, modern technology and the lack of a human interface keeps getting him down. The robot police don’t understand his sarcasm (and really, shouldn’t he know better by now?), the robot parole officer also doesn’t understand his sarcasm (seriously, twice in one day? This guy is a glutton punishment) and the only human authority he has dealings with, the plant manager at the assembly-line job he’s “lucky to have” forces him to choose between unemployment and an incredibly dangerous move – and Max chooses to keep his job. Of course, this leads to Max into a situation where he’s going to die in just a few days…unless he can get to Elysium, the fabled castle in the sky, where they can cure all diseases (and we’ll find out, do complete facial reconstruction surgery in a matter of seconds). Interspersed with all this, we get a look at his past, where the nun from the orphanage he grows up in sees the “bad boy” doing whatever it takes, including stealing, to save the money to get to Elysium and she points out that the Earth looks beautiful from far away, too. So maybe the message is make your own world a better place and don’t worry about what others have.
The message here is really simplistic and filled with ideas we’ve seen before. Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, defense secretary of Elysium and is completely one-dimensional. She feels like she’s channeling Nicholson’s Col. Jessup from A Few Good Men when she tells the president of the colony that he’ll be glad she’s there to do what needs to be done to protect his way of life. She’s heartless but dedicated. So she’s the bad guy, she wants “the other” to be put down (although she’s willing to use The Other, in the form of Sharlto Copley’s Kruger, for her own ends).
In Elysium, the plot is driven by action which seems to be created for the specific purpose of driving that plot. There’s very little that’s organic here. People are injured or killed or kidnapped at the point when it’s most convenient, plotwise, for that to happen. When Kruger gets his face and half his head blown off, we’re told he still has a functioning brain so the medical computers just go ahead and rebuild his face. At the same time, when Delacourt gets stabbed in the neck (which I’m assuming isn’t nearly as dramatic in terms of blood loss as having your head vanish) she dies with no chance of recovery. It makes no sense. Neither does the main plot device to reboot the system, which seems to indicate that the political power in the habitat is controlled by software and yet, Delacourt consistently derides the president for his fundraising and campaigning.
The problem, as it seems to me, is that writer Blomkamp really wants to have a message but director Blomkamp isn’t sure what he wants that message to be. And he’s got plenty to choose from so it’s not a dearth of ideas, but a surfeit and the compulsion to make sure they’re all included, to the benefit of none. I’ve been seeing this a lot recently and I wonder what it presages. One more pass, maybe two, and this could have been a brilliant film. It could have been focused and meaningful. But this was not to be, at least not this time. We may have again come to the time of the dramaturge, and this wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.