Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium: Dark and Dysto-pointing

The director of 'District 9' creates a dark, dense future world where not much new happens

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Kimberley French / Columbia Pictures

Four summers ago, South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp sprung District 9 on a world that didn’t know it wanted to see a science-fiction parable about apartheid. The world applauded the 29-year-old’s imagination in creating sympathetic if uggy space monsters who looked like giant prawns — no, George Carlin, this time “jumbo shrimp” is not an oxymoron — and his dexterity in injecting a political agenda into a grab-you-by-the-throat action scenario. That the whole fabulous enterprise cost only $30 million, and earned $200 million at the worldwide box office, made him a darling to the money men as well as to the cinemascenti.

The message Blomkamp seems to have taken from the praise for District 9 is: more politics, less narrative wallop. Elysium, which at least triples the first film’s budget and adds Matt Damon and Jodie Foster as marquee bait, spends less time appealing to the viewer’s What-comes-next? impulse than on elaborate social metaphors. The result is a grim and predictable adventure saga that is not nimble but leaden. Dystopia has rarely been so dysto-pointing.

(READ: Corliss’s review of District 9)

In 2154 — the same year in which Avatar is set — the wealthy have fled Earth to pursue lives of chic indolence on Elysium, a luxurious satellite a 19-minute flight away, where Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) is plotting a coup. Down in Los Angeles, robocops patrol the violent streets; the city has become an ugly crime lab for Hispanic thugs and a few lowlife Anglos. One of these, the ex-con Max (Damon), gets a radiation overdose that can be cured only on Elysium. He has five days to live. To reach the satellite and receive treatment, he agrees to a data-heist scheme that could kill him by sundown.

Elysium posits a blend of two clashing political scenarios: the Occupy Wall Street notion of the 1% enslaving the 99%, and the Tea Party fear of Latinos turning American cities into Rio-style favelas. But wait, there’s more. The illegals keep trying to invade the promised land to overthrow the Richie Riches, and to get access to free, life-saving medical care. Through some industrial-strength brain surgery, Max is implanted with crucial secret data downloaded from the brain of Elysium’s top techie entrepreneur (William Fichtner), who may as well be Steve Jobs to Max’s Edward Snowden. And of course there are drones, monitoring the underclass and attacking them at whim. In the movie’s macro- and microcosmic view, 2154 is a nightmare extension of 2013.

(SEE: The Elysium trailer)

Blomkamp spends most of his ingenuity on the contrast of the two landscapes. Elysium: an enclave of Miami-style mansions and sterile office warrens. L.A.: a filthy barrio, the walls scarred with graffiti, the men’s bodies fetishized with tattoos — Damon’s torso is its own garish artwork. If the city were a Monopoly board, every square would be Jail. (For further political piquancy, Blomkamp shot some of the Elysium scenes in posh Vancouver, the L.A. barrio scenes in fetid Mexico City.) The color is desaturated to the point of exhaustion, in the one big summer action film too poor or too proud to use 3-D.

The context and subtext are plenty imposing here. What’s missing is the text: an engaging plot. Blomkamp stitches patches from a bunch of other sci-fi films — the rich-poor futureworld of Gattaca, In Time and Upside Down, plus the mind-melding caper from Inception — that devolve into a numbingly familiar series of chases and fights. For the token romantic interest, he has Max bond with an ER nurse named Frey (gorgeous Alice Braga, who has played this same role, the Angel of Dystopia, in City of God, I Am Legend and Blindness). Guess what? They knew each other as children — orphans in a convent! And guess what else? Max has five days to live, and Frey’s daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) is dying of leukemia. Puh-lease. Can’t a movie stir tension without endangering a child’s life?

(READ: Corliss’s review of In Time)

Foster, as Elysium’s Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, seems stranded on the satellite, her acting skills left back on Earth. Flaunting (in Iowa congressman Steve King’s colorful phrase) calves the size of cantaloupes, she spits out her nefarious schemes in an accent that roams vagrantly across the English-speaking world in the space of a sentence. Damon, back in his wily-prole Jason Bourne identity, gets a nice moment early in the film when he is interrogated by a robocop who can’t take, or understand, Max’s jokes. (In 2154, humor is subversion, and sarcasm a felony.) But for half of the movie he’s imprisoned in a metal brain case, making viewer empathy a real challenge. Like the stars of two other recent sci-fi downers — Tom Cruise in Oblivion and Will Smith in After Earth — Damon must forsake his natural screen charm to play a gruff character who’s just this side of human.

(READ: Reviews of Oblivion and After Earth)

District 9 managed a graceful, entertaining fusion of political satire, some sensational monster CGI and a wry narrative take on interspecies friendship. Elysium, for all its visual and allegorical density, could use the input of that gifted filmmaker. Somebody, get Neill Blomkamp to save Neill Blomkamp.

11 comments
ChangezAli
ChangezAli

Elysium is not a film for stupid people. Ultimately, critics and reviewers will pan the film simply because they're unaware of the sci-fi tropes and themes that it references. Like Tarantino, Blomkamp is demanding engagement from the viewer, and when one is able to shunt disbelief aside and enter his world, the brilliance of his vision and his technical ability in portraying it make it an emotionally and intellectually satisfying experience. This is Asimov meets Orwell, it shows a depth of understanding of the nature and evolution of technology as well as the essential structures that produce it that should make most political scientists feel ashamed. Blomkamp isn't producing 'summer block buster entertainment' for the American masses, he's trying to create something artistic. This is not Lady Gaga, it's the White Stripes. A lot of critics will miss the joy of this movie by trying to watch it in terms of a summer blockbuster, instead of being aware that this is a director who will never (at least we hope) produce anything that Hollywood wants him to make. Blomkamp heavily references the scientific types found in novels like Dune and gives them a feeling of reality that is almost creepily grounded in today. A lot of critics ask questions like "how did people end up on Elysium". Well how have rich people in any time period distanced themselves from the masses? The answer is slowly. This is a film that will ultimately be beyond people who have never seen or noted how extreme income disparities develop and who have no feeling for how political economy reflects in technology. As such, many critics will try to cast it as a parody or satire of today's world, but in doing so will miss the point completely. This is the world of today taken to its logical end. Solid acting by Matt Damon who plays the everyman with a sort of pent up aggression that's important to the role. Jodie Foster's role is delightful, but ultimately, if a movie is defined by the quality of its villain, Foster is an antagonist but not the ultimate evil. That's reserved for Sharlito Copley, who's portrayal of Agent M Kruger brings chills, all the more so because his type of existence and the nature of his evil are so well recorded in history. But you'd have to know some history to know that and so we come back to the point; Elysium is an intelligent film for intelligent people, and many critics will bash it simply because they don't get it. I certainly don't expect the editor of Time Entertainment to do so. Frankly, I hope Blomkamp simply ignores them and that we continue to see the evolution of this fascinating artist.

DrNeuron
DrNeuron

Disagree.  The movie takes a unique approach at drawing grand disparity between social classes yet maintains the sci-fi edge that attracts a mega audience.  How better to deliver a message than entertainment in the escalating viewer demand for more amazing special effects.  Damon does an excellent job.  Self centered to self actualization and self sacrifice, sane vengence defeating insanity at the fascist level of extreme behaviour.  For the critics who bash the story and the actors, perhaps insight, introspection and conscience might help your reviews.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

All the trailers I've seen have been amazing, so either they become bad when put together, or this review is off.

I will take my chances with Elysium.

lauriedtmann
lauriedtmann

I hope Neil Blomkamp doesn't become the next M. Night Shyamalan.

riccismiles
riccismiles

Hollywood, like most of our politicians treat us like imbeciles. This movie, on paper, sounds AMAZING. But, I've seen an extended look into this film and what they have decided to sell us is a lowbrow action film. JOY.. I'll be waiting to find a good copy somewhere out on the NET.

ians.tacos.87
ians.tacos.87

Lol ! Good article! "Puh-lease" child endangerment is the all time box office grosser, didnt you know? Havnt you seen the maury show? After reading this, you should watch the Gay remix trailer I made for Elysium, you will die laughing! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk9pr-F7MoM

copyqueen2
copyqueen2

So now can we get on with District 10? Pretty please?

YohanMusik
YohanMusik

@riccismiles Congrats, you're part of the problem. You haven't even seen it but will pirate it based on assumption, talk about greed. The movie is actually great, well written, with enough exposition and enough action never over bearing on the messages and never over bearing on the action. One of the best sci-fi movies in a long  time

riccismiles
riccismiles

@YohanMusik @riccismiles Point taken. I like Blomkamp and was on the early train trumpeting how great District 9 was...  Unlike District 9, I'll wait for more YohanMusiks to step forward and compel me to visit the theater for this one. Nothing I've seen is inviting, and even the sci-fi looks juvenile. I enjoyed District 9 because of the sleepy creep of the science fiction and it worked within the story. Personally, I'll have to admit, a story that pretends we will have a "Space City" within any time period less than 500+ years loses me as a Disney-esq dream. I understand people need such dreams, but I dont have to support such childishness served as a mature movie. I'm prepared to eat all of these words.. In truth, I HOPE to eat all of these words. Good movies are too few and far between... SO.. I can only cross my fingers that more people like you come to the fore and crush the negative movie reviews.. and there are a lot.