Someone should tell Neil Blomkamp that he’s got the support of Peter Jackson behind him, ever since his terrific directorial debut with District 9. He doesn’t have to cut corners by constantly shooting in slums. In this case, it’s the slums of Mexico, doubling as Los Angeles 2154 in his new film Elysium.
While the trailers present a pretty basic storyline, that of Matt Damon having to somehow get up to the space station Elysium where the 1% have made their home, the film has more social issues which it strives to beat about the head and shoulders of the audience. Earth has been laid waste through some unknown cataclysm; perhaps a global financial collapse, a world war, a climate catastrophe, it’s not really explained, and it doesn’t matter. Assuming you’re living on Earth as you read this and are aware of the current conditions of our planet and its people, accepting the third world milieu of Los Angeles in this film is not a stretch of the imagination. That’s why all the wealthy have left the planet for Elysium, where they live in the lap of luxury, leaving the rest of us poor saps to fend for ourselves on Earth, amidst crime, disease, unemployment and overcrowding. Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa, who apparently is the only white man left in L.A., is lucky to have his job at Armadyne, a corporation that manufactures robot policemen. That is, until he gets trapped in a containment booth and receives a lethal dose of radiation. Now it’s all about getting up to Elysium because, in addition to having the best of everything, every resident up there has a med-pod, which is capable of eliminating any disease or injury.
The trailers present this basic storyline, making it apparent that this movie is about making the case for the great schism between the haves and the have nots. That’s fine, most good movies couch social commentary in metaphorical tales. But, wow…to have a scene in the first ten minutes of the film where a band of Hispanics board makeshift ships to try to sneak up to Elysium? My head was already throbbing from being beaten over by the commentary. That, combined with the clear cut statement about healthcare, was a bit much, but I went along with the ride. The trailers had shown me in advance that I was going to be watching an analogy intended to demonstrate the inequality of good and bad healthcare (right after being irradiated, a robotic doctor tells Da Costa he’s got five days to live and tosses him painkillers, then fires him from the job), and the immigration subtext at the beginning of the film didn’t keep me from settling in for the ride, there was a lot of movie left to enjoy and I was okay with being subject to a social lecture.
However, the film hit me with multiple setups and plotlines; I ended up not being able to hang my hat on any of them. With the help of Spider, a high tech criminal, Damon becomes a quasi-cyborg to steal valuable information about Elysium from Armadyne’s CEO; in exchange for the information, Spider will help Max get up to Elysium. Okay. No wait…Max must get up to Elysium because the daughter of his childhood girlfriend is dying from leukemia…okay. No, wait…a black ops quasi-cyborg mercenary named Kruger is hired to kill Da Costa and take over Elysium and Da Costa must stop him…uh, no, it’s about a coup within Elysium’s government because the president doesn’t approve of the methods of those within his cabinet…wait, my head is officially spinning. All of these plots would’ve most likely made for one great movie. As it is, the plotting is an exercise in overkill. And most unfortunately, the final act of the movie contains a typical Hollywood fight scene and a plot point that provides no surprises whatsoever.
Bizarre performances are another element that mar the film. Jodie Foster, who is usually spot on (and in my book, the only woman who could’ve picked up the kickass action-heroine baton from Sigourney Weaver; here’s hoping Chloe Grace Moretz runs with it) delivers a really strange performance here. I learned from Wikipedia that she was playing a French character, so that answered the question of the weird accent she was using. But she plays Elysium official Jessica Delacourt like a budgie trapped in a cage; herky-jerky motions with her head and neck, eyes darting back and forth…truly odd. As I said, she plays a French character, so I’m curious…were Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tatou and Bérénice Bejo (Oscar nominee for 2011’s The Artist) all too busy to audition? And Wagner Moura as Spider is completely over the top. He doesn’t deliver his lines so much as howls them.
What makes the movie really worthy of viewing, besides Matt Damon’s performance, is the visual effects. This film really makes the case that the geeks at ILM and WETA should throw out their CGI computers and go back to scale models (well, all except for the team that created Gollum). Robots populate a significant amount of the frame and they look stunningly real; they do not look CGI, it doesn’t look possible that they are actors in suits, yet they move, they walk, and they fire weapons realistically. The spaceships and transports are photorealistic as well, and adding all the dirt and grime to the technology makes it all the more convincing. Matt Damon’s exoskeleton looks painfully real, like Star Trek Borg v1. And it is all very cool.Unfortunately, the aggregate plots and characters become overwhelming and key performances are off-putting. I’m not writing this movie off altogether, but I’m looking forward to Blomkamp delivering a better, more streamlined film next time. It remains to be seen if he can craft another story which takes place in a slum. Slumdog Millionaire 2: Rise Of The Machines? 3/5 reels