By Alan Travers (Galway, Ireland, http://alantravers.com/)
To start, I should say that I had impossibly high expectations set for Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. One of two films that I’ve been eagerly anticipating (and avoiding spoiler trailers) for the year (the other being Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity), Elysium was always going to have a hard time living up to my own personal hype.
Anyone who has seen Blomkamp’s previous feature sci-fi flick District 9 will probably have set the same huge expectations, so to begin with, he’s going to encounter some problems. District 9 was one of the best films of the last few years, and definitely in the top 5 best sci-fi movies of the last 10 years. On top of that, it was gritty, funny and head-shakingly original. To convey the feeling of xenophobia during apartheid-era Johannesburg with the arrival of refugee aliens from outer-space is the work of pure genius. But this isn’t District 9. And, unfortunately it’s hard to separate the two from comparisons.
Elysium looks fantastic. The VFX are brilliant as always. Blomkamp began his career as a 3D Artist and pioneered the brilliant technique of combining lo-fi handheld camera footage with seamless CGI integrated. It works so well in his films and shorts to add a much-needed grittiness to the usually polished world of sci-fi. Elysium itself looks like a slice of perfection with minimalist tidy modern design, whereas Earth has more of a District 9 Jo’berg slum feel to it, this time a bit more like a giant favela in Brazil (it was shot in a huge rubbish dump in Mexico) with some grimy modern technology scattered about. The CGI droids are composited to perfection. Not a single flaw. And that goes with the mind-melting slow-motion battle scenes too. However, there are a couple of noticeable oddities. In a scene towards the end of the film on a large platform, the shallow depth of field seems a little too shallow (or just a bit miscalculated) and there are occasional moments where the “camera” shutter speed seems too fast (when flying over Elysium) and is hard to take in. But these are just small blunders in what is some of the finest VFX in sci-fi today. And to top it all off, Blomkamp went Moon-style old-school with his VFX. There was obviously a lot of CGI, but for ultimate accuracy, miniatures were used along with doubles and actual builds.
The story of Elysium is interesting, but ultimately flawed. The social commentary inherent in dividing the classes and the importance of universal medical care is obvious and clearly the central point of the film. However, good science fiction always grounds itself by being believable. It’s fiction, it’s the future, but the technology and the ideas are always achievable, one would imagine. The social commentary of what humanity has become is the ultimate goal of any science-fiction tale, but this is told in a future world that should seem like it could actually happen. The world of Elysium isn’t too farfetched. Overpopulation, disease and poverty cause the rich to set up their own world on an orbiting space station. But the unbelievable side of the story is what lets the whole tale down.
First of all, it’s impossible to believe, no matter how grim a view of humanity you may have, that nobody, not one single person, on Elysium would feel a pang of guilt, compassion or charity for their fellow man in turmoil on their home planet. There are no charity organisations or volunteers working on Earth from Elysium. Rich people are portrayed as a kind of evil, distanced people, happy enough to ruthlessly murder innocent people who try to steal free medical care from their new world. Medical care at present is not universal and the poorer classes suffer (and often die) because of this in many countries across the world, but the medical profession is a costly one to maintain. Trained doctors, expensive medication and medical supplies that constantly need to be replenished.
All of this is redundant in the world of Elysium because of the medical pods that detect illness and cure all within a couple of minutes. I’m sure these pods are probably expensive, however it’d just take a donation of one of these pods to Earth to potentially cure all diseases (people could queue up around the clock to have their ailments cured in one go). Even if it wasn’t from a humanitarian perspective, surely the government of Elysium would send a couple of pods to Earth to stop refugees from illegally entering the space station, breaking into the houses of the inhabitants in order to use their medical pods and being captured and deported back home. Or even in more extreme incidents when they are destroyed by missiles launched by a rogue sleeper agent on Earth. The government should really be looking at a more efficient method of dealing with this situation than using expensive rockets and security systems.
Besides the inherent flaw with the storyline, the film narrative remains engaging and interesting. You are drawn into the story, but unfortunately not into the characters. Matt Damon’s performance isn’t bad, but it is seriously underplayed, and because of this, we don’t get enough from the character to empathise properly. When it comes to the development of Max, we never really feel for him like we would have for, say, Wikus. Jodie Foster’s character is two-dimensional, as is William Fichtner’s. Both characters seem genuinely evil to the point of psychopathic. They have no empathy for other human beings and, as we are given no background to the characters, we can only assume that greed is the only reason for their behaviour.
Sharlto Copley features again, and shows a broader range than before, impressing us again with his engaging acting skills. He portrays a rogue sleeper agent on Earth, Kruger, who is a million miles away from Wikus Van Der Merwe. He is tough, strong, huge and aggressive. He steals every scene he is in as always, but unfortunately his character suffers the same lack of development or even back-story and seems to lose impact, despite a great performance by Copley.
SPOILER ALERT – Skip the following paragraph to avoid spoilers!
Blomkamp’s film narratives seem to be following a kind of formulaic template. The hero is chasing his own selfish desires, usually a desire to save his own skin, stepping over anyone in his way, but encounters injustice and oppression first-hand, develops empathy and sacrifices himself for the good of the oppressed people (or prawn). While all of this happens, the viewer is exposed to the reality of social segregation and oppression through a blatant social commentary. District 9 worked so well because it was such an original and new idea. Elysium still works – it’s a great story (albeit with a few plot holes and not enough character development), but it feels like it’s following the Blomkamp formula.
Despite all of this, Elysium is a fantastic film. It’s a sci-fi movie that is far better than most other sci-fi films you will see this year. It has intelligence, social commentary, brilliant VFX and it’s gritty. It also has some of the best and most inventive weapons of any sci-fi film. It’s obvious that Blomkamp is a gamer – you can see it in his style of shooting during some of the battle scenes, notably the excellent mind-melting shots that follow behind Max’s head as he spins around attacking the droids in the heist scene. You can also tell from the weapons he creates. The exo-skeleton is a great idea and looks the business. The droids themselves are great too, but it’s the weapons that they all use that are a gamer’s dream. Blomkamp has a great ability to take something that you’d see in a video game and bring it to life with fantastic VFX. There are times in his movies when you get an early glimpse at a sophisticated futuristic weapon or full-body exo-skeleton or the likes and then, later on when you get to see it in action, you get genuinely excited.
So, all in all, Elysium is probably the best sci-fi film you’ll see this year (possibly until Gravity comes out) and outside of the genre, it’s a very interesting film with some interesting ideas and social commentary. The film is shot beautifully and the VFX is (mostly) astounding. The storyline itself is flawed, yet still holds your interest throughout, but falls down on it’s lack of proper character development. Elysium’s most unfortunate downfall is the fact that it will always be compared side-by-side alongside the excellent District 9 which I’ve managed to only do 5 times in this review…