In 2009, a science fiction film came from out of nowhere (well, out of South Africa), with no stars but some fantastic special effects and a great story and script making a parable for its home country’s apartheid history. It featured a brilliantly realised world which felt true in every detail and offered insight without being heavy-handed. That film was District 9, (co-)written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Elysium is his follow-up, this time with the might of Hollywood behind him. The risk is that Hollywood will see the original and up the ante on the wrong things as the things that stand out are not necessarly what made the original great in the first place. For a recent example, see Kick Ass 2, wherein the violence and, especially, the swearing were upped while the intelligence and the character was ignored, resulting in a soulless piece of garbage that’s in the running for the worst film of the year.
Blomkamp secured some quality when he came stateside though, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster taking the leads, two actors with a lot of smarts and who don’t pick projects indiscriminately. The film is again a science fiction take on problems in the modern world, this time healthcare, or more specifically the American healthcare model. We’re in a world where the rich (the 1% if you will) have decamped to an orbiting space station, Elysium, while the rest of humanity is left to struggle and rot on earth. Naturally everyone on Earth wants to live on Elysium where the 1% seemingly do nothing to maintain their position and can be cured of cancer by what amounts to a tanning bed crossed with a photocopier. Foster is charged with keeping Elysium free of refugees, but has clashes with those above her in the system and has designs on running things her way. Meanwhile, Damon is a working-class Joe who made a childhood promise to a girl to take her to Elysium one day. Now that friend’s daughter has leukaemia and only Elysium can save her. After being exposed to a likely fatal dose of radiation, Damon is determined to make it up there.
O paper Elysium has the potential to be a truly great science fiction film, something to join the pantheon of greats from the 60s and 70s and those of more recent years, including films like District 9, Twelve Monkeys, and Children of Men. These are films which offer a wider reflection on humanity, on time, on life, on what it means to be human. It’s a shame, then, that Elysium fumbles the opportunity to such an extent that it’s almost laughable to bring those films up in the same paragraph.
What is wrong with the film, at its core, is that it doesn’t present a believable world. Damon, himself, does a good job in the central role of Max, but everyone around him feels like they are there to facilitate the plot or to ensure that Damon doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When building a world, science fiction or otherwise, the further away from the current reality it is the more you have to work to make it feel real. Here, virtually no character that interacts with Damon feels like they have their own sets of wants, needs, or motivations. They play archetypes or caricatures or people who ask Damon things so that he can explain his feelings about the world or what his next move will be. Everything that exists in this world is only there to serve Max and his story.
Then we come to Foster. It’s a very strange thing, but every single line she speaks appears to be post-dubbed (that is, appears to have been rerecorded in a studio and lip-synced badly after the event) despite the fact that she seems to spend nearly all her time in almost forensically clean environments. She speaks in a strange, clipped voice which doesn’t fit in with anyone around her. Her motivations are never fully explored and her job doesn’t seem to make sense. She is there to protect Elysium but all this seems to entail is calling Sharlto Copley (star of District 9) on Earth and getting him to fire rockets to shoot down the refugee vessels. Elysium itself seems to have no security system (to the extent that this giant ship in space appears to have no way of keeping the oxygen in – there’s not an air-lock in sight).
Foster’s plan to take over (and why, when she lives in this seeming paradise, she wants to run it, is never properly explored) is to take a piece of computer programming that would make Elysium’s computer systems think she’s in charge. This will be delivered, Johnny Mnemonic style, in William Fichtner’s brain. Presumably this is a future where not only is cancer cured on a tanning bed but computers viruses can no longer be transmitted wirelessly but instead are more like human-to-computer STDs.
Anyway. It only makes less sense from here on in. There is no insight present, there is no character and what plot there is is risible. It’s a terrible shame because, as I said, when you read out the ingredients this appears to have the makings of one delicious three course meal. I’m trying to think of a positive to throw out, and I’ve heard others say that Copley provides that, but I thought he did his best playing what amounted to little more than an over-the-top bad guy from an 80s action film like Robocop, but while some of the turns in Robocop might be approaching laughable, they worked in the context of the film around them, a film which, incidentally, created a highly believable world. Copley’s take on the part, while trying to paper over how underwritten the role is, is at odds with the humanistic take from Damon and the Badly Dubbed Porn performance from Foster. None of them feel like they exist within the same film as each other.
I’d like to say that it’s a brave attempt, but it fails too much for that. If this is the project that Blomkamp has worked on for the past 4 years, it feels sorely underbaked and in need of another 4 years to add the depth and humanity that a film like this needs. Ultimately it is less successful than the Tom Cruise-led Oblivion from earlier this year, and that was not a film anyone should be going out of their way to see.
Film length: 1hr 49 mins – Feels like 2hrs 5 mins