Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elysium review

*light spoilers below*

While watching "District 9" for the first time, I had to remind myself that this was someone's first movie. Neil Blomkamp had never directed a feature-length film before, yet not only did he show complete, total confidence not normally seen with someone's debut feature, he had a style that was undeniably his own. Socially conscious sci-fi action. He found his niche, he managed to make a sci-fi film with a message, but without making the film about the message. The film was still cool enough, still had enough great action, to be a fun movie. I had never seen quite anything like it up to that point, especially not one with such great visual effects on such a relatively small budget.

Blomkamp's knack for visual effects is definitely present in "Elysium." Elysium also has some elements of social commentary, unlike District 9's apartheid elements, Elysium delves into class issues. The 1% live on Elysium where people live the life of luxury and are instantly cured if they have an illness. The 99% live on Earth, where apparently things have really gotten outta hand, especially by the year 2154.

It's by this year where we are properly introduced to Max Da Costa (played by Matt Damon). As a kid, Max dreamed of one day making it to Elysium. In present day, any hope for that happening seems nil. Max now has a bunch of tattoos, a criminal past, and a bad attitude. An accident at work has left him exposed to a deadly amount of radiation which has given him about five more days to live. The only way for him to survive is to reach Elysium.

Well alright then. We have our plot. Let's do this! Of course there are other elements at play here. Max has to find a way to get to Elysium, which means making a deal with his criminal buddies, getting into a violent heist, and crossing paths with Elysian Secretary Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) as well as a mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Max has to steal information from the brain of billionaire CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner) in order to get a trip to Elysium, a task he is able to do but not without leaving a body count.

What may surprise you is that Jodie Foster actually plays a baddie here. It never occurred to me until seeing this movie that Foster has never played a villain before, and I now see why. She can't play one. She literally can't. She's the most woefully miscast actor I've seen in a movie of this size. I don't know what got into her because she's a talented enough actress, but she's completely stiff in this role. She never seems to know how far she should go. And her character never seems to have a clear motivation. It's just an underwritten, badly portrayed character and, ultimately, she winds up not playing that large of a role in third act.

Kruger is also a very peculiar character. After Copley did such a great job carrying District 9, in Elysium, the writing for his character is just way too uneven. You never really know what this guy's all about, whose side he's on, and by the end he turns completely one-dimensional.

But one of the most unforgivable aspects (there are actually two) of Elysium is that the film's main character is also one-dimensional. Max has very little backstory, aside from the brief flashbacks we see in the beginning. He manages to reconnect, and later help, the woman he used to be childhood friends with (played by Alice Braga), but not much more is explored between the characters. Ultimately, the sacrifice he makes at the end of the film feels unearned and completely lacking of any emotional climax. He's just not an interesting enough character.

Which leads to the biggest problem of all: the film is a cop out. Blomkamp had insisted in interviews that the film isn't meant to have a specific message, but when you introduce strong thematic elements such as class structure and healthcare, you would think there would be more nuance to it. You would think there would be a more apt resolution than just "everybody gets saved." It feels like a complete and total cop out. He creates these two worlds yet doesn't take the time to really explore them, instead being insistent on letting this plot play out which is the most basic of all plots. And it wouldn't even be a problem if the film was just reliant on plot, the fact remains that we're still not given enough to allow this film to play out to the emotional resolution that it wants to have.

None of this is to say that the film is just plain bad because it's not, honestly. It still has some great action sequences and it's is actually a really tight, well-oiled machine... but that's also kind of the problem. They managed to whittle this down into a tight film that works on the most basic level, but it does not resonate at all once you leave the theaters. And thanks to the miscasting of Jodie Foster, there are some rather cringe-worthy moments as well. The film showcases that Neil Blomkamp is indeed a talented filmmaker, there's no doubt about that. Next time around though, he may wanna pay a little more attention to the script.

And you know what? Have a goddamn message. By streamlining everything, Blomkamp actually manages to make the film more preachy than he intended. Since there is no nuance whatsoever, we are literally given this: people of Elysium = bad, people of Earth = good. If Blomkamp, instead, chose to have a very clear, strong message he would've been forced to create some complexities and nuances. He would've been forced to make the characters more interesting. I'd rather a filmmaker try to make a film be about something and fail, then a filmmaker make a decent enough film that's really about nothing... which is basically what Elysium is. It's not a bad film, overall, but it's definitely a disappointment.

Grade: C

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