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Non-Review Review: Elysium

Elysium is good old-fashioned high-concept science-fiction. With production design alternately evoking the seventies (the upper class satellite that gives the movie its name) and eighties (the apocalyptic wasteland of future Los Angeles), Elysium feels like a conscious attempt to evoke classic genre films. Blomkamp builds in a healthy amount of social commentary, and there’s something quite satisfying in seeing a large-scale science-fiction film that isn’t afraid of big bold ideas.

However, the execution feels just a little bit muddled. The plotting is a little convoluted, and the third act becomes incredibly messy. The characters inhabiting the world never seem organic, with their motivations and behaviour prone to change rapidly to meet the rapidly-changing demands of a very messy script.

In a bit of a fix...

In a bit of a fix…

When the movie requires Jodie Foster’s sinister villain to by suspicious and mistrustful, she is; however, when the movie needs her to misplace her trust in people who really quite obviously don’t deserve it, she does. When the movie needs Sharlto Copley’s mercenary Kreuger to want nothing more but to kill and destroy, he does; however, when the movie needs a more ambitious antagonist, he steps effortlessly in the role of would-be master mind. When black market dealer Spider needs to be purely exploitative, predator and mercenary, he is; when the movie needs him to be a social revolutionary, he eases into that niche.

The movie builds a world which looks wonderfully crafted. Earth looks like something from a hybrid of Paul Verhoeven or George Miller. Body horror and cyberpunk are the order of the day, with surgeons conducting grisly surgery in environments covered with graffiti. Los Angeles appears to be nothing more than a shanty town. Communities live in tents on platforms built off skyscrapers. When our lead characters plan a smash-and-grab operation, they drive cars that look like they came from the set of Mad Max.

That must be a pain to clean...

That must be a pain to clean…

After a workplace accident, forced into a deal with the devil, Matt Damon’s Max wanders around looking like the illegitimate love child of Robo-cop. Arguably he looks more like a spiritual successor to Paul Verhoeven’s Robo-cop than the photos leaking from the upcoming remake. Blomkamp gives these scenes the same sort of bleak and gritty feel he lent to District 9, making the whole planet feel like a wasteland.

If Earth is a gigantic homage to eighties science-fiction, Blomkamp frames Elysium itself as a shout-out to older cult science-fiction. The station is all bright greens and whites and blacks. The design of the orbital platform, and its cleanliness, can’t help but evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Secretary Delacort settles into her command centre to deal with illegal immigrants, the room is all smooth and shiny black, evoking the production design of the Empire in Star Wars.

Talk about buiding it up...

Talk about building it up…

Again, the presentation and production design are stunning – Elysium in particular feels like a suburban neighbourhood… in space. The rich characters are all made up to look slightly unreal, their skin stretched and subtly lined to give the impression of tattoos without the mess of ink. Wealthy industrialist Carlyle cast a little etching on his cheek that reads “riché.” The world of elysium feels rich and surprisingly well-formed.

In particular, the director frames clever comparisons and contrasts to suggest that perhaps – beneath the cynical set-up – the rich and the poor are not so radically different. Max’s tattoos are just more obvious than those adorning Carlyle. The impoverished on Earth speak Spanish, but the wealthy on Elysium speak French – even the languages are not so radically different. Both Earth and Elysium are pointedly multi-cultural, with Blomkamp avoiding the stereotypes associated with these sorts of class-commentary science-fiction films.

Packing a punch...

Packing a punch…

Perhaps that strange optimism at the heart of a very grim film is one of the problems. The plot of the movie hinges on the idea that the entire system can be fixed with something as simple as a computer program, that class warfare can be ended with a simple “find and replace”, and that those in power really have no ability to keep it. The plot twists and turns to throw obstacles into the path of Max, but it never feels like there’s any vested interest in maintaining the status quo beyond Jodie Foster’s incredibly aggressive Delacross.

When trouble arrives on Elysium at the film’s climax, the local security forces are a complete non-entity. There’s no suggestion that anybody except Delacross is interested in maintaining the exploitative status quo. Given how oppressive the set-up is, and how dark the movie’s opening forty minutes are, the ending feels a little too easy – a little unearned and contrived.

Not a woman you want to Delacros...

Not a woman you want to Delacros…

At the same time, the script feels a little too contrived, more interested in building its world than in developing its character. When the movie needs to transform its lead character from self-interested so-and-so to a more altruistic figure, he crosses path with a sick child who offers him a heart-warming story that melts his cold self-centred heart. Sick children always run the risk of feeling like contrived story points, and this is no exception.

It’s a shame, because outside of these plotting and character problems, the movie works surprisingly well. Jodie Foster isn’t given too much of a character, but she relishes the role. Her accent is weird, a strange hybrid of influences suggesting just how multi-cultural Blomkamp’s future is. Sharlto Copley relishes the chance to play the movie’s bad guy, one remarkably far from his high-profile roles to date. Indeed, Copley is surprising convincing as a murderous psychopath.

Mad Max...

Mad Max…

There’s a lot to like in Elysium. It feels like an affectionate throwback to old-school science-fiction films, a big movie that isn’t afraid of big ideas. The script just feels a little overloaded, a little more interested in the world it is crafting than in the story it’s telling or the people who live in it. It’s still striking, bold and beautiful. It just falls short of brilliant.

8 Responses

  1. I was hooked until it turned into just another punch-up climax between guys in super powered suits.

    • I was skeptical a bit earlier. Any time you use a sick kid as a shortcut to the audience’s sympathy, you need to be very careful.

  2. This review is poorly written. You’ve made it incredibly wordy and difficult to read.

    • I’m always glad to take constructive criticism on board. What words did you have trouble with?

      Nah, I kid, but I like how “too many words” is a valid criticism. Who says modern culture is dumbed down? As for the “difficult to read”, what do you mean? Is the text too small? Do the pictures take too long to load? Or is the content the problem? Do I use too many complex words, or am I off-base in my discussion of seventies and eighties sci-fi designs? Is my criticism of the use of a child a little too coy, a little too wry?

      Or is it that I don’t reduce the film to a simple star rating or thumbs up and thumbs down? I’m open to criticism, but it’s helpful if that’s a bit more eloquent than “you suck!”

  3. I saw this yesterday and I have to say it was right up my street.

    Loved the ideas, the plot, the characters. But I do think we need more time for the charactersto ddevelop. This review points it out beautifully. Though with the film already pushing 2 hours the cinema seats began to get a little uncomfortable.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this action packed fantasy and would recommend It to those who wish to escape the norm for a while.

    Well worth a watch x

    • I liked a lot of it – mainly the world-building, the direction, the performances. I just thought the script lacked polish and was more than a bit lazy in places. (A dying kid? “Find and replace” that reboots the class system?)

  4. I agree with the Movie Waffler. This movie had great ideas, very relevant especially now with the issues in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It also looked great on the big screen. However when it turned into your typical action punch up story in the last quarter of the movie it was let down a bit. I saw this around the same time as Oblivion. Originally I preferred Elysium, but have since changed and now prefer Oblivion as it seems more intelligent sci-fi.

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