Review: ELYSIUM Falters By Taking The Middle Road

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Review: ELYSIUM Falters By Taking The Middle Road
After storming onto the scene with District 9, made on the fly after a much-publicized aborted attempt to film Halo, Neill Blomkamp immediately established himself as a sci-fi director contending with the big guys. While not everyone loved his overtly metaphoric take on a famous Apartheid-era incident, I found the film to be both visually impressive and thoroughly enjoyable from both a story and performance standpoint.

Blomkamp arrives with Elysium, his slightly delayed foray into big budget, big studio extravagance. Some of what made his earlier film enjoyable makes the transition well, some gets lost in translation, but overall we have a satisfying, if not particularly revelatory, addition to this year's slate of summer sci-fi fun.

From the sweeping opening shots, the film looks quite extraordinary. Crumbly buildings litter a spent earth, while the space station "Elysium" hovers in near orbit, reflected as a kind of new moon in the daytime sky seen from the planet below. The round, spoke-wheeled station bespeaks Kubrick's 2001 as we see shuttle craft emerging from the axis, gliding down to visit the wretched that live only to serve those who live in luxury above.

The film centers around the exploits of Matt Damon, who gives his all in a performance that frankly reminded me of the type of thing that would have been given to Bruce Willis during the 90s. There is a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film, at least in terms of the low-level paranoia, the use of many ducts, and the type of anti-establishment, overtly political statements being made within the context of a genre picture.

elysium-photo-jodie-foster-350.jpgSome of the arch performances from the baddies don't play so well. I'm frankly at a loss for recalling when Jodie Foster really could carry herself on screen, and her most recent takes, going back to the particularly egregious The Brave One, are making me forget it's not that long ago that she was extraordinary in something as recent as David Fincher's Panic Room. Still, her clenched teeth performance is meant to be a bit over-the-top, so while it's distracting, it's hardly the only issue with the picture.

Yes, Sharlto Copley has a very different role to play that allows for a bigger presence, but you only need look to him to find a performer who's more fully committed to his role than Foster. One of the highlights of District 9, Copley's character brings a bit of the Mad Max madness to this film, cutting through some of the more somber (and, more frustratingly, saccharine) elements of the story line. A slew of other human characters, including the ever pointy and sallow William Fichtner, play their parts with enthusiasm.

From a production point of view, there's a bunch of deft touches, from the Bugatti Veyron-ian spaceship that serves as Fichtner's ride, to the well-designed robocops that litter the story. Blomkamp's background in 3D visual effects serves him well, with the integration between the CGI elements and the organic bits pulled off effectively.

In other words, the ingredients are all here - a big canvas, some grand ideas about inequity, justice, an a paucity of resources being exploited by a privileged elite. Yet in the end these grand ideas are no more than a gaudy collection of intellectual set dressing, more distracting than genuinely intriguing. Whether it's the process of being churned through committee, or simply a result of a meager storyline being stretched too far, this smartening-up of this kind of tale actually becomes more frustrating than many of those that eschew such themes for mere spectacle (see: Pacific Rim) or simply borrow from a myriad of other, superior films to make grand references instead of grand proclamations (see: Oblivion).

*** Beware, there are MAJOR SPOILERS below. ***

When we are presented with such an overtly political narrative, we're made to look closer at some of the elements within the story, and quickly find things to nitpick the life out of the film. The entire society of Elysium seems to consist entirely of empty mansions and a few select hallways, where political arguments are made in hallways right out of the Cloud City set from Empire Strikes Back. It seems that the entire political system of us-vs-them is not the result of a scarcity of resources, or blind hubris, but on a genuine, malevolent disdain, an attitude that's simply stated as fact rather than developed. No evil is done without some form of ideology behind it, and we're simply made to take as fact that in this tale rich=bad and the poor will one day rise to claim their rightful equity within society.

The last moments of the film are particularly appalling, where slow motion shots of running children play like some mid-afternoon charity drive. The narrative holes become bigger and bigger as the film runs along, and the grand sacrifices are made in ways that are telegraphed from about a minute into the film. Worse, needless flashbacks and beat-on-the-head metaphors truly make the entire exercise feel needlessly polemical.

By opening up this box of sophisticated, though provoking sci-fi, Elysium's script demonstrates over and over that it's simply not able to live up to its myriad of premises. It's a smart enough script to dance around the issues, but not smart enough to know when to dial things back, when to trade subtlety for extravagance, or vice versa. Even the "save the sick child" card is played to try and draw some audience response, as if simply rescuing the entire populace of a planet from curable maladies wasn't enough of a reason for self-sacrifice. I kind of dreaded the fact that the last minute "hacking" of the systems felt more like an Emmerich film (cue Will Smith and his programming prowess!) rather than something that should be taken seriously.

These (many) annoyances aside, there are still many things that will appeal, including a delightfully morbid facial reconstruction. Still, even the action sequences in those many, many hallways are often a mass of motion blur and quick cuts, never firmly establishing the sense of movement. When the final "boss battle" takes place on one of those catwalks that seem built for just such a cathartic battle, it all feels more than a bit tired.

*** End Spoilers ***

elysium-poster-300.jpgTo the film's credit, they go for the hard rating, making for some surprisingly gore-filled moments. Rather than masking the violence in a mist of PG-rated prudishness, there's a kind of orgy of explosive entrails littered throughout. Still, I found my mind wandering at times amidst the carnage, wondering why if you're building a humanoid robot you'd bother having it operate so that when you decapitate it that deactivates its systems - surely we as a society can engineer automatons without our very human frailties.

We're sure to see much more world building from Blomkamp, and it's clear that he's both extremely talented and extremely ambitious. What's frustrating with Elysium is that this ambition seems to have overreached the burdens of its story. The fancy visuals and sci-fi tropes can't make up for the fact that fundamentally the film doesn't even rise to the philosophical sophistication of a Pixar flick. If my snarky "Wall•Eysium" dig cuts too deep, it's only out of frustration for so solidly taking the middle road. Once again, we can look to Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Brazil, two films that built worlds effectively, told overtly political stories, but did so within a greater context that manged the alchemy of both being intellectually rich and also narratively cathartic.

Elysium, alas, cannot pull off this magic without faltering. We can applaud the attempt, be swayed by a summer film that at least attempts to do something new, original, and without requiring massive destruction and the feats of supermen, but that would ignore the fact that this does, in fact, very much trade in those stereotypical elements. 

After all, when men don exo-suits in order to beat each other up with aplomb, we're really yet again in superhero territory, and in this context it feels even more hackneyed. By this point, we've really delved quite far away from what at its core must have been at some stage a truly interesting, if not groundbreaking story.

The films opens wide in theatres across North America on Friday, August 9.
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ElysiumJodie FosterMatt DamonNiell BlomkampScience FictionSharlto Copley

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cuttermaranAugust 8, 2013 3:48 AM

And here he goes again.

SiAugust 8, 2013 8:44 AM

I think District 9 employed the aliens as a metaphor for black people, not the Afrikaners. The latter were a part of the apartheid government at the time.

Jason GorberAugust 8, 2013 9:46 AM

Um, no. I assume you're being serious, and not just trolling, but the issues of indigenous vs. Invaders doesn't work in reverse, not does the way the film's power dynamic play out equivocate to a post-Mandela RSA.

If you want to see a right (blatantly subversive) right-wing, pro-fascist Alien invasion metaphor, there's always STARSHIP TROOPERS.

My point about this film, however, is that the grand metaphor is even more wispy, to the point of being almost banal by the end.

hutchAugust 8, 2013 10:07 AM

Wait. What? Starship Troopers? I might be daft, and I have seen right wingers flock to that movie, but I still don't see how or why. Seems tongue-in-cheek to me.

Jason GorberAugust 8, 2013 10:22 AM

I may have been too coy - ST is clearly an intensely sarcastic film, taking the piss out of jingoism (hence: subversive), but I was at screenings where people were cheering for the film with out any sense of irony.

That said, Si's comment got me thinking, and I believe I may have been too quick to dismiss it. I may have to rewatch D9 just to see how that metaphor plays out - I certainly saw it as indigenous vs invaders, but maybe my memory is slightly more fuzzy and the metaphor slightly more complicated in the previous film than I'm giving it (and Si) credit for.

Or, perhaps he's wrong, and I'm right. :)

Jim BeemAugust 8, 2013 10:34 AM

Neill Blomkamp doesn't want to be Terry Gilliam. He wants to be James Cameron circa the 1980s. Critics seem to be missing this.

Julian LieAugust 8, 2013 11:56 AM

Starship Troopers surely wasn't "too coy", the US war-propaganda is just so over the top (no idea how it's in Canada)

Julian LieAugust 8, 2013 12:01 PM

aw shit. I just misread the "I may have been too coy" as "IT may have been too coy"...
but my argument stays: there is something wrong with your propaganda stuff

hutchAugust 8, 2013 1:33 PM

Oh, Yeah. I noticed that too. Right wingers flocking to ST. But I always thought "Don't you know irony when you see it?" And believe me I've seen some serious irony in terms of who supported the film, thinking it was right wing and what happened to them during the current wars. Ouch.

Pa Kent Says MaybeAugust 8, 2013 8:54 PM

Right wingers do not understand irony. It has no function in their world-view.
Irony, to a winger, is like Evolution. It ain't mentioned in the Bible.

Pa Kent Says MaybeAugust 8, 2013 8:56 PM

Um, no, you're just wrong.
The alien shrimp in DISTRICT 9 ARE meant to represent Black Africans under Apartheid. It IS indigenous v. invaders in reverse.

That is PRECISELY what it is, and why, for me, it fails, utterly and completely.

Tender BransonAugust 9, 2013 12:01 AM

Afrikaners is not right. The aliens in District 9 weren't invaders, they were more like refugees. The overall metaphor wasn't so specific.

Jason GorberAugust 9, 2013 1:03 AM

I already addressed it above, but you'll see I revised the text upon reflection. The central point is this - D9 was richly metaphorical (to the frustration of some) and ripe for varied interpretation. ELYSIUM, on the other hand, suffers by being both far more overt and far less interesting.

Stuntman MikeAugust 9, 2013 2:10 AM

Eat a dick!!! Elysium was the tits... When was the last time you made a movie you sad cunt?

broyaleAugust 9, 2013 2:13 AM

The Aliens in D9 didn't represent the black african population but were refugees from other countries like Zimbabwe which have fled in their millions to SA during Mugabe's rule taking over from the native black population as being the last rung on the ladder.

Bewar3them00nAugust 9, 2013 3:05 AM

Damn! And I so wanted Elysium to be the no holds barred, epic adventure, with social commentry it promised.....
Still, I will go see it because District 9 was such a refreshing new direction ( for sci-Fi film) and Blomkamp is still a real talent with a unique voice.
Maybe the dalliance with a big budget and studio interference, has watered down his vision? Maybe we expect too much from a mainstream summer blockbuster, because, at the end of the day, this is what it is, even the best sci-Fi are just glorified takes on classic tropes, Star Wars= rescue the princess from the tower
Alien = Haunted house,,, etc,,,,
District 9 left a lot of people cold, so maybe he had to temper his voice and shoe horn it somehow into the studio approved model?
Regardless, his films are worth supporting over the dross from Bay et al,l we are subjected too, all too frequently

Todd BrownAugust 9, 2013 10:42 AM

Aren't you the charming boy?

$tuntman MikeAugust 9, 2013 1:28 PM

So charming that my shit don't even stink... You should smell it bishhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

ZtylesAugust 10, 2013 9:38 AM

No no no. Well yes and No, Bolkamp being a South African was comenting on not just the Apperthied that everyone knows about but the more recent and tragic events of xenophobia that were occuring not too long before the movie came out. Other Indegionous Africans being discriminated upon when seeking a new life in SA. It was a sad state of affairs and Bolkapm addressed it. Google District 9 xenophobia.

Sheldon SpradlingAugust 10, 2013 9:52 AM

ELYSIUM Falters? BullS&#T !! I watched this in IMAX yesterday and was blown away !!

NihiloAugust 10, 2013 5:53 PM

Regardless, I will support Neill Blomkamp's flim(s) because he is not willing to sacrifice artistic integrity for a PG-13 rating. We need more directors like him more than ever.

Theo BlackAugust 11, 2013 3:43 PM

could we just have a conversation about the fascist undertones in Starship Troopers? That sounds fun!

robthomAugust 13, 2013 6:12 AM

Thats interesting that you mentioned "Saccharine".

Although I was impressed with and respected District 9 as an accomplishment,
it often seemed just a bit too "Saccharine".

Not Speilbergian levels of shmaltz,
but just trying a little to obviously to extract a specific emotional response.

Which is why I haven't watched it again.

robthomAugust 13, 2013 6:15 AM

Who are you,
the prince of all movies.

And why did you mention IMAX?
Is that what you liked about the movie?

Some people are blown away by Hannah Montana,
get over yourself.

robthomAugust 13, 2013 6:21 AM


The mind of a 13 year old can only desperately lash out in frustration.

robthomAugust 13, 2013 6:23 AM

now the child has a dollar sign in his name.

Maybe one day he'll get a job.

(Being a stuntman or an astronaut.)

robthomAugust 13, 2013 6:25 AM

I would describe that as much more accurate.

Although never being very impressed with cameron I hope he doesn't stop there.

Ard VijnAugust 13, 2013 10:56 AM

It isn't so much invaders vs. indigenous as it is oppressors vs. oppressed. Remember, after having been there for a few hundred years you could safely call the white Afrikaners indigenous too.

Sheldon SpradlingAugust 13, 2013 6:01 PM

Yeah.....I agree Stuntman Mike...really enjoyed far he is 2 for 2....looking forward to his next one....

Sheldon SpradlingAugust 13, 2013 6:11 PM

Wasn't tooting "my own horn" so....nothing to get over....and "I" am just someone who loves to watch all kinds of movies and I mention Imax because this movie fucking rocked in Imax....period.

YogabearAugust 17, 2013 4:22 PM

This review was harder to understand than the bible.

GBannisMarch 31, 2014 1:51 AM

Foster was fine in "The Brave One," and she was terrific in "Inside Man," released just the year before "The Brave One." So why the uninformed hate and generalization about all her recent films?