Film Review – Elysium
There might not have been a bigger breakout into the film world in recent years than that of director Neill Blomkamp. After being denied the opportunity to direct a live action Halo movie (despite the support of Peter Jackson), Blomkamp made his feature debut with District 9, a film that shook audiences through a combination of creative storytelling and mastery of CGI, taking a small $30 million budget into a worldwide sensation and making over $200 million. Given the critical and commercial success of that movie, the massive anticipation that has been tracking for his next project, Elysium, comes as no surprise.
Set in the year 2154, the story revolves around the class battle between the poor, who live in slums on Earth, and the rich, who live on a man-made space station called Elysium, a place where poverty and illness no longer exist. Leading the charge is Max (Matt Damon), an orphan who dreamed of reaching Elyisum as a child and is now forced into a desperate struggle to get there when he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work. Unfortunately, this desire, and the desires of his fellow serfs, go in direct opposition to Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who can see the rising tension between the classes and has a plan to stop it.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, who find themselves locked into franchises (J.M. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Sam Mendes), Blomkamp continues to be one of the most original and creative voices working in film. While Elysium is being released in the year 2013 when conversations about class battles are common, the film began production back in 2011, prior to the rise of the Occupy movement. Despite not being inspired by Occupy directly, thematically the movie has a lot in common with it. This is a sci-fi action movie for the 99%. The story is a bit heavy-handed, painting the rich as a diabolical group of individuals using the system to keep the worker drones in line, but that doesn’t keep it from being fun. The way Blomkamp is able to build his sci-fi dystopia upon this situation makes it easy to get engaged by the story.
One of my biggest concerns heading into the movie was whether the trailer had given away too much. While it did give away a lot of the underlying conflict, as well as the set-up for Matt Damon’s character, it still left enough of the plot under wraps so as to keep everything from being predictable. In particular, Sharlto Copley’s role as Kruger is much more complex and significant than the generic villain henchman he is portrayed as in the trailer. His prior relationship with Blomkamp can be seen on screen, as his work proves to be among the most effortless and engaging of the movie. And despite his departure from the Bourne franchise, Damon once again proves that he is one of the best action stars of this generation, really embracing the spirit of the movie.
Even though trailers make it clear that this is an action movie, one of the surprising elements is the violence. It is rated R, but seems to have somewhat snuck under the radar, because it is graphic and gory at times. This is a bold choice, because R-rated films are notorious for opening at a fraction of their PG-13 counterparts. The really gory scenes are sprinkled in (it isn’t constant), but if you have a child or someone who doesn’t like looking at blood or disfiguring wounds, you might want to find someone else to accompany you. In addition to the violence, the language is amped up as well—not to the point that it becomes off-putting, but it’s something that’s noticeable upon further consideration.
Similarly to District 9, the CGI work in the film is quite impressive. Blomkamp’s ability to weave together live action with CGI is among the best of filmmakers currently working. Not only does he do a fantastic job of creating a borderline apocalyptic world on Earth, but the time on Elysium feels like it is a real place. It is hard to wrap your mind around this film being made for a paltry $100 million dollars when most summer blockbusters are made for upwards of twice that—I can’t for the life of me undertand how something like The Lone Ranger can cost $215 million in comparison.
Elysium is a fun movie, but like a lot of sci-fi movies, it has a fair number of logic gaps. Unlike Pacific Rim, which attempted to explain a lot of the “science” (unnecessarily, if you ask me), Elysium doesn’t really have large gaps like that—instead, the problems are smaller and closer in line to those in Independence Day: strange production decisions that probably could’ve been solved easily if they’d wanted. Sending drones after Matt Damon right away, explaining why a person could survive a stab wound for eight hours, stuff like that…we’re not asking for major changes. Just something like simple lines of dialogue or actions like putting duct tape over a wound would fix a lot of these small holes.
While Elysium is not a perfect movie, it is a fun one. If you like action and/or sci-fi, then this is one of the most engaging films to come out so far this year. Hopefully the decision to make the film rated R doesn’t hurt its theatrical performance or reflect negatively on Blomkamp, because studios should be lining up to give him their money. It is great to see big original projects coming out of Hollywood; they seem to be getting fewer and farther between.