Aug 16 2013
District 9 was one of the most significant sci-fi movies of the past decade. It was made on a comically low budget, yet still had a blockbuster feel to it, more visually impressive than movies that had spent hundreds of millions more. Yet it was far from a mere popcorn flick, and drew powerful performances from its unknown cast, managing to score a best picture Oscar nomination in the process.
After that, director Neill Blomkamp had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted next. A sequel, handling another existing property, anything. With Elysium, he decided to shoot for a repeat, another gritty, original sci-fi feature with socially conscious themes.
Unfortunately, the final product just doesn’t match the caliber of District 9.
But boy does it try. Now with a dramatically increased budget of $100M+, it does everything D9 did, but bigger and better. They landed a pair of Oscar winners for the leads, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. They had all the CGI in the world for robots, spaceship and anything else they’d need.
The problem is that all the money in the world can’t buy you good performances from your expensive actors, or a worthwhile story.
“Now you get AM and FM.”
Elysium in the film is massive space station, built by the rich of Earth after the planet below had gone to shit. They live in giant white mansions up there, speaking French, attending endless cocktail parties and poolside fundraisers with other stuffy rich people. It’s supposed to be heaven, but it sort of sounds like a version of hell.
Meanwhile, Earth is a polluted, overcrowded mess, especially downtown LA where 99% of the population is Latino, except for Matt Damon’s Max, because naturally we couldn’t have a Latino lead in a movie this big, come on.
Max used to be a car thief, but after a stint in prison, now works as Armadine, a vaguely evil omni-company that builds the security robots that force the peons of Earth to do the bidding of the rich. But one day, he has an accident on the job, and a lethal dose of radiation gives him five days to live. His only salvation? The insta-healing chambers of Elysium that can cure cancer in seconds, and assuredly purge his body of the toxic poisoning.
Standing in his way are Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who spends her time bossing the President around in ways that make me confused about the power structure of the place, and her sleeper agent on Earth, Kruger (D9′s Sharlto Copley), who has a history of mental illness and access to an unlimited arsenal of weaponry.
“They’ll never suspect me in my flawless crazy bum disguise!”
To earn his black market ticket to Elysium, Max must mind-hijack valuable data from his boss at Armadine (William Fitchner) and then survive the journey through space without being blown out of the sky or executed the moment he sets foot on the station. Oh and in the process, he’s supposed to save the entire human race, but you’ll have to watch yourself to figure out how the hell that’s going to happen.
One of my only issues with District 9 was that I thought it’s parallels and commentary about apartheid in South Africa were a bit too obvious. I mean, the film was set in South Africa, and was about an alien ghetto. But that comparison was downright subtle compared to the ham-handed political messaging of Elysium.
There are two main points constantly being driven home by the film’s narrative. The first is pretty obvious when Elysium security starts rounding up “undocumented” vehicles entering their atmosphere and then hunting down and “deporting illegals.” Like, that’s literally the phrase they use, and all of these intruders are Latino. That’s not social commentary, that’s just declaring out loud with a megaphone what issues your film is trying to address.
Later, the film shifts into its second political message, and focuses on the asshole rich who don’t want to give the miserable poor access to healthcare. There are machines on Elyisum that literally cure any disease in seconds. Not only that, but when one character has his face half blown off, it reassembles it perfectly in under a minute. There’s absolutely no reason given as to why even a handful of these absurd magic boxes couldn’t be given to Earth to health the masses. Do they cost too much? Can they break from overuse? You have to give us something other than “rich people are dicks.”
“You want fifteen seconds in my insta-heal pod to cure your little girl’s life threatening leukemia? NO DEAL, F***WAD!”
I’m not bothered by the messaging because of my own political leanings. I’m fully opposed to hardline immigration policies and believe that universal healthcare is a swell idea. But the film is just SO DAMN OBVIOUS with these messages, it crowds out everything else in the film.
The action is cool, and I love the cyberpunk sci-fi worlds that Blomkamp creates both here and in D9. The soundtrack, the cinematography, everything is technically amazing, but still, the film suffers. Damon, despite being the lead, isn’t given much to do and is constantly in a state of perpetual agony. The villains are downright cartoonish, with Copley turning up his South African accent to ridiculous levels so that it’s hard to even understand him. Somehow Jodie Foster gives the worst performance of anyone, determined to make herself a parody of what a stuffy rich villain should sound like, even inventing a new type of over-pronounced accent in the process.
This is literally a film about Latinos trying to break into a rich person Garden of Eden so they can have access to free healthcare that instantly solves all their problems. There’s social commentary, and there’s this, a movie that clumsily spells everything out at every turn, and doesn’t manage to produce a memorable sci-fi film while it does so. It’s a shame because of the level of talent attached to this project, and if you me in April that Tom Cruise’s Oblivion would be twice the sci-fi film Elysium is, I would have previously laughed in your face. But it is indeed the case, and continues a trend of a relative lackluster summer movie season this year.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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