Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 breakthrough directorial feature District 9 was an innovative, critically-acclaimed science fiction film made on a reasonable budget with an unknown cast. The film grossed over a hundred million dollars in the U.S. and went on to earn a surprise Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. The strange little gem of a movie basically had three things in its favor which largely contributed to its success: 1) A unique guerilla marketing campaign, mostly made up of interesting video clips intended to go viral. 2) A “documentary” style that helped give the film its unique look, fostering interest in the project and differentiating it from typical summer fare. 3) The name “Peter Jackson” on the project certainly didn’t do any harm to the film, showing audiences that a popular filmmaker believed in the project. Unfortunately, after a four year wait, Blomkamp’s follow-up film Elysium doesn’t really have anything similar going for it.
Set just far enough in the future to seem somewhat plausible (2154), Elysium is the story of Max Da Costa (an unbelievably miscast Matt Damon), a factory laborer and ex-criminal who dreams of living on Elysium, a lavish habitat designed solely for the rich floating just above the earth’s atmosphere and visible from a downtrodden, over-populated Los Angeles, as if taunting the dregs of society still stuck on earth. On Elysium, the rich can do all kinds of things, such as stepping into a futuristic healing chamber (an idea explored somewhat in 2012’s Prometheus and 2013’s recent The Wolverine) and heal their wounds/diseases/illnesses almost instantly. Elysium is largely ruled over by Secretary of Defense Delacourt (a befuddingly-accented Jodie Foster), and she rules it with an iron fist, shooting down illegals who attempt to enter the restricted paradise on a regular interval. When Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, he needs to get to Elysium to cure himself. His plans are complicated when he is asked by long lost friend Frey (Alice Braga) to take her daughter along with him, who is suffering from leukemia.
Elysium strives to feel as important of a film as District 9, but it just doesn’t carry the weight of that film. District 9 was a haunting film in a lot of ways because how realistic it felt. The documentary aspect certainly added a level of realism, as did the script, mined from Blomkamp’s personal experiences in South Africa. It also helped that actors in the film were largely unknown to American audiences, making them seem much more like real people (Copley’s portrayal of Wikus deserved an Academy nom). In Elysium, Jodie Foster and Matt Damon just look like Jodie Foster and Matt Damon (except with a ridiculous accent in Foster’s case and a ridiculous shaved-head/tattoo look in Damon’s case). Elysium looks somewhat like District 9, just without the documentary angle. It is gritty, dirty, filthy, and at least kind of realistic to look at. The technology seems like it could be plausible in 2154, and that is kind of neat. The film, unfortunately, just isn’t as good as Blomkamp’s predecessor, never reaching the heights of that amazing film.
For starters, there isn’t all that much to the script. The script is, in fact, kind of cliche and dumb. At the beginning of the film, it is revealed that Max and Frey are both orphans (of course they are) and that a nun has told Max that he will one day do something special (of course he will). Max grows up to be a hardened criminal attempting to go straight, but he is thwarted at every end by either the police (who have been replaced by terrifying but awesome-looking droids in the future) or his bosses (one of whom is played by an incredibly sleazy and spineless William Fichtner). Max never comes off as particularly likeable, even though we’re obviously supposed to feel bad for him. I was much more interested by what was going on with Jodie Foster’s character up on Elysium, but despite the film being titled Elysium very little time is actually spent in the damn place. After Max is accidentally exposed to the lethal dose of radiation, he must first plan a heist, then run and hide from the police, and then finally take a ship to the utopia in search of the medical pod. An interminable hour and ten minutes must probably go by before he gets up there, not that things get particularly better once he sets foot there anyway.
The best aspects of Elysium, other than the special effects and set design (which rival Pacific Rim as the summer’s most interesting), are the supporting performances. Despite a ludicrous accent (as well as occasionally speaking in German for some reason), Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt is an interesting character. She has personal motivation for the decisions she makes, at least. She also employs Agent Kruger (a maniacal Sharlto Copley, who is both excellent and seems to be acting in a better, much more interesting movie) and his two mercenary associates. Kruger is the absolute best character in the movie, but he doesn’t get all too much screen time unfortunately. He and his merc buddies are also not written particularly well (another weakness in the script — ultimately why should Kruger care if Max gets to Elysium?), but the three come to life based solely on the actors’ performances. It helps that Kruger and his men look absolutely bad-ass, using high tech weaponry and other cool gadgets throughout the film.
Elysium has the makings of a good movie hidden in various places throughout its running time. The special effects, set design, and supporting characters are all interesting. The action choreography and overall direction isn’t bad at all. Damon, however, is somewhat of a non-entity, and I’ve just never been able to buy him as an action hero. In Elysium, we’re expected to buy him as both an action hero *and* a hardened ex-criminal, which just stretches the levels of credulity I can allow within a movie a bit too much. Blomkamp’s debut directorial feature District 9 is one of the best science fiction films of the past 10 years (and maybe more). His follow-up, Elysium, isn’t nearly as good. It’s ideas aren’t as fresh or developed, it’s characters aren’t nearly as interesting, and it doesn’t have the heart of District 9 whatsoever. I still believe that Blomkamp has it in him to make really entertaining, thought-provoking science fiction films. Elysium just doesn’t quite get there, despite a few good ideas spread throughout.