"Elysium" (2013)- Movie Review

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley

‘Breakthrough Originality’

In a Summer that’s so far occupied by passable superhero entertainment, a mixed-bag of animation fare, and hit-or-miss action caterers, Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” brightly stands out. Not because it’s the first sci-fi offering of the year, or one of the only times we’ve seen Matt Damon without hair. It’s ultimately due the sheer ambition, creativity and originality of such a project.

For director Neill Blomkamp to tackle it right after the small-in-size, yet groundbreaking “District 9” is a risky move: a bold step into territory that most filmmakers of this day and age wouldn’t dare to enter. Especially when (like Blomkamp) they’re new to the art of filmmaking. Regardless, this sci-fi creator certainly has showed a knack of bravery by going forth with his idea. Whilst his 2009 directorial debut felt like the work of a much more experienced talent, the filmmaker’s latest effort “Elysium” is bigger, both in size and spectacle. It features an A-lister cast, and a concept that is a notch up in terms of complexity. Everything on display rings like the work of an undeniable talent, so what could possibly stop Blomkamp from achieving greatness? Well, as seen over the last few years with films such as “Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, offering loads in a motion picture isn’t always better. When blockbusters decide to take the high-ground in delivery, they end up falling apart due to their own decisions. The final product is bloated, nauseatingly long entertainment. Although “Elysium” doesn’t fully reach that ‘too-much’ stage, director Neill Blomkamp is tempted to break his boundaries. He appears to have many ambitious ideas in his mind, yet with this sci-fi caterer the navigator only manages get some of them on paper.

That being said, a film as unique as “Elysium” hasn’t hit the screen since last year’s time-twisting “Looper”. As a matter of fact, these kinds of movies aren’t made on a regular basis. Not nearly enough. They arrive on rare, celebratory occasions to raise expectations and more so, filmmaking itself. Forgetting all of it’s countless problems, Neill Blomkamp’s latest effort does exactly that. It’s a near-restoration of faith in an industry that seemed to be losing steam.

If “District 9” was an examination of aliens, this sci-fi romp is a breathtakingly intense pummel into the lives of humans. Set in the year 2154, where Earth is polluted by diseases, “Elysium” focuses on the conflict between the classes of people. The poor are unfairly forced to endure the dirty environments and lack of healthcare on a ruined planet, while wealthy humans are situated in a spaceship that offers a healthy, casual lifestyle. Inhabiting the former, Max (Matt Damon) is a determined factory-worker who dreams of going to the latter due to the guarantee of a safe life. After catching a dangerous disease that threatens his life, he goes on a mission to set equality between the worlds of Earth and the spaceship named Elysium.

At first sight, this story appears to be a rehash of typical war-zone fare. Yet as Neill Blomkamp proved with his thoroughly clever “District 9”, he isn’t interested in formula but invention. What he has managed to create here- an entire universe with it’s own rules- requires guts and arguably even passion. As a filmmaker, Blomkamp has both and much like Quentin Tarantino, isn’t afraid of pushing the envelope to achieve heights. The advantage of having such an original concept in your hands is that you can take many directions with it. Perhaps any. And that’s essentially what Blomkamp makes use of with “Elysium”. This writer/director isn’t concerned about traditional Hollywood cliches or repeating a familiar narrative; he wants to present entertainment that’s entirely refreshing and different from usual film bonanza.

Thus culminates a sharp plunge into a dark, gritty dystopian vision that’s highly fascinating. Despite the fact that the location as well as visual palette is similar to that used for “District 9”, they’re just as effective. Setting a grim tone for “Elysium” are stunning visuals. Jarringly distinct, they piece together not one but two starkly contrasting worlds. Whether it’s the rusty look of a diminished Earth or the breathtakingly sleek and stylish visuals of a man-made spaceship, director Neil Blomkamp surely knows how to please the eye.

Where he falters, though, is in providing a story with humanity. For a fantastic hour or so, this writer beautifully sets up the characters, narrative and pulsating ideas, but ultimately gets lost in hyper-realistic style instead of substance. Amidst the spectacular, thrilling action sequences is a story that- when set up- bursts with raw potential and energy. Sadly enough, along with the characters, it isn’t quite explored in an enlightening way. Much of the action takes place on Earth, while the magnificent looking Elysium spacecraft is abandoned and surprisingly avoided. Time is certainly spent on the spacecraft with introductions to it’s cool mechanics such as healing restorations, yet in the long run, it’s not enough to make the creation memorable. What’s sorely missing from the world is a sense of depth. Perhaps, a stronger attachment to the story could have done the trick.

Likewise, characters aren’t handled carefully either. Apart from a somewhat emotionally affecting childhood story between Max (Matt Damon) and Frey (Alice Braga), there isn’t any reason to care for them at all. It’s a massive problem, especially when both of these characters are leading protagonists whom we are supposed to root for. Rewardingly, however, star-power is undeniable. Damon and Braga redeem the seemingly dull nature surrounding their characters. Devoid of his hair, Damon hasn’t been this energetic and charming for years, while Braga tunes in impressive work as a women dealing with the illness of her child.

Quite ironically, the star that steals every scene has the most one-dimensional character to work with. Sharlto Copley is riveting, spine-tingling intense as the titular villain, a scruffily bearded man with nasty intentions. In spite of this character’s lousy motivations and lack of development, the actor displays goose-bump worthy screen presence.

With such talented performers on board, it’s easy to forget about “Elysium’s” bizarre plot turns, overbearingly slow-motion action sequences and Jodie Foster’s irritatingly robotic character. As captain of this steering ship, Neill Blomkamp all too often gets carried away with his heavy ambitions, yet an unpredictable conclusion suggests otherwise. What he has accomplished, in the end, is highly entertaining fare for sci-fi lovers. It’s less intelligent than it is a thrill ride, but in a rather uninspired season for movies, not always do you come across a film that’s this original.

3/5 stars

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