Thursday, 23 January 2014
2009's District 9 was one of the most exciting directorial debut's of not just the Science Fiction genre, but of any. Director Neill Blomkamp masterfully crafted a unique and entertaining action film that was also loaded with an astute social and political commentary. That the director set such a strong standard for himself makes his problematic follow up film, Elysium, all the more disappointing.
Neill Blomkamp // 2013 // 109 mins
**This review contains a discussion about the plot structure of Elysium and so may spoil aspects of the plot. **
In a dystopian future where Earth has become overpopulated and poverty and sickness is the norm, the wealthy and privileged have made a new life for themselves on a man-made space station where advanced technology allows them to be cured of all ailments, diseases and injuries. When factory worker Max (Matt Damon) is exposed to extreme radiation at work and sent home to die he takes on a mission that will give him the chance to enter Elysium and save himself. Equipped with an exoskeleton to strengthen him, Max steals confidential information that could change Elysium forever and in doing so crosses paths with Elysium government secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who seeks to use the information to give herself full authority of the artificial earth.
Elysium's biggest flaw comes in the form of it's script. The concept is full of promise and potential but what we get instead is a strong premise that descends into a series of action movie clichés driven by a collection of one-dimensional characters. Pacing is key to any films success and Elysium really struggles to build any momentum; the action sequences are few and far between and the character driven parts that fill out the rest of the runtime feel drawn out and less than thrilling. From the get-go the film feels as though it should be building to an extensive breach of Elysium, but it is only at the 50 minute mark that Max even gets close to being ready to head there, and it's a further 30 minutes before he does. This results in a film that has more exposition than anything else and leaves little time for the considerable pay-off that it needs to balance the film.
Failing to elevate the lacklustre plot are a series of offensively one-note characters, filled by talented actors who deliver performances that range from bland to terrible. The best of the worst is Foster who benefits from good styling and an accent to at least make her otherwise stereotypical villain easier to watch. Damon looks the part of an action hero and gives his best but suffers from an undeveloped character who is hard to engage with and often extremely selfish. Sitting firmly at the bottom of the heap is District 9 alumni Sharlto Copley as Delacourt's henchman Krueger. Once again he looks the part, but the actor that delivered a brilliant performance in Blomkamp's last film seems to have been replaced by a pantomime villain who is too cringeworthy to even be considered laughably bad. Alice Braga and Diego Luna fill out the cast but fall into the category of doing so little that they become forgettable.
The only real saving grace of Elysium is its technical achievements and in particular the visual effects, which are impeccable. Elysium itself looks magnificent and it is a crime that so little time is spent on the space-paradise, while Earth gets a grimy make-over that sees the Los Angeles landscape reduced to a wasteland of slums. The sound design, score and tech/costume designs are all great, with the only real technical problem being Blompkamps decision to clumsily alternate between intolerable shaky-cam and unusual slow-motion during the action sequences.
After District 9, the prospect of Neill Blomkamp having blockbuster levels of funding and resources at his disposal was an exciting one. Unfortunately Elysium succumbs to the standard set by all those blockbusters before it; neglecting any socio/political commentary for a dumbed-down action flick that doesn't even have that much action. There's still clear potential in Blomkamp, and Elysium has shown how important a well written narrative and characters are to seeing his ideas reach their full potential. So for now I will keep my expectations low and hope for him to impress me again in the future.