Monday, September 2, 2013


In 2009, Neil Bloomkamp made sizable splash with his debut feature District 9, with complex characters and a well thought out world, it seemed like a real piece of visionary filmmaking on par with the likes of Paul Verhoeven. Unfortunately Bloomkamp is suffering from the sophomore slump with his follow up, Elysium, an earnest, reductive, pandering, startlingly dumb film.

The year is 2154 and the rich have left Earth to live in the titular, hood ordainment shaped, space station. Elysium is meant to stand in for upper-class America, but unintentionally comes off as Heaven, where beautiful, kinda ethnically diverse people sit around all day by the pool and tan themselves and there is no sickness or pain because every home has a med-pod that magically cures you of anything instantly.

Our unambiguous, White Savior/friend to children hero is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a lowly Earthling orphan with a dream in his heart to save up enough money to cross that Space Border into Space America. One day while working in a factory, making robots for The Man, Max sustains a heavy dose of radiation that will kill him in five day unless he can get to Elysium.

Getting there is going to be a challenge as Elysium is off limits to the proles on Earth which, in the absence of the wealthy, has become an over-populated, planet sized shanty town. Sometimes people try and sneak into Elysium, but more often than not they're shot down by the stations security chief, Delacourt (Jodie Foster in one of her worst performances), who really hates undocumented migrants for reasons never coherently explained.

Have you figured out the metaphor yet?  Because Bloomkamp doesn't think you have. Max recruits the help of Spider (Wagner Copley), a techno coyote who agrees to help if Max first agrees to a very convoluted heist that requires him to go under the knife and be outfitted with a neural link-up and exoskeleton. But, the exoskeleton is one of the film's many ideas and details it doesn't have time to develop. Yes, the film does look fantastic, particularly the Earth segments and there are few people with a sharper eye for future tech than Bloomkamp but great production design means squat in a word this flat and cartoonish. I'm a real sucker for immigrant stories and blue collar strife, but the border analogy Bloomkamp draws never progresses beyond its initial conception.  Everything feels sketchy, particularly as the action moves to the space station.

Bloomkamp has repeated a lot from his earlier film, both films are races against time with a hero who's physiology is altered against their will and must fight all powerful oppressors, and the similarities get even more specific from there. That's fine, there is a serviceable tradition of director's using newly acquired Hollywood resources to essentially remake their independent (or pseudo-indipendent) breakouts. What's startling is what he chose to not copy, namely the humanity. In District 9 we had a protagonist who was pitiful one second and complicit in the oppression of an entire race the next. That complex relationship between a film's main character and the audience is rare and kind of magical. At the very least that unpredictability gave the action scenes a huge shot in the arm. Elysium doesn't have that. Its characters are cardboard at best, running around, shouting and getting involved in some very badly done action scenes and the one or two moments where Bloomkamp does try to undercut Max are mindbogglingly forced.
Instead of treating the genre as a gateway to complexity, he indulges in simplistic, pandering fantasy. In Bloomkamp's mind, the poor are all helpless saints waiting for an able bodied white man to save them, women are damsels and the rich have always had the ability to magically cure all that ails us with a literal push of a button, but choose not too out of pure evil. If the film didn't favor the common man, Ayn Rand would be proud of how reductive this film film is. The film does have an admirable social consciousness, but an allegory this simplistic and lacking in humanity doesn't do any good. Elysium isn't a terrible entertainment, but boy it's a disappointing come down from an ambitious debut.

Grade: C

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