It’s ‘The Bourne Space Station’ as Matt Damon’s lowly factory worker tries to heal the world with the aid of a big computer game gun in Neill Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow-up to District 9.
Made for a song compared to today’s mega-budget tent-poles, 2009’s District 9, wherein a ship containing insect-like aliens arrives above Johannesburg in South Africa, seemed to come out of nowhere and announced the presence of a major new talent in sci-fi filmmaking. A major strength of the film is its social themes of racism, segregation, illegal immigration and corruption, all of which carry a greater symbolism when considering the South African roots of the film and its writer-director.
Although handed a much heftier budget this time round, Blomkamp retains the social commentary in his script for Elysium, exploring as it does some of the same issues as District 9, while also touching on such pressing contemporary concerns as universal health care, class divide and the resentment felt towards the one percent-ers.
That it does so in such an unengaging and disappointing fashion, therefore, is a real shame for a film that promises much but, in the end, delivers little.
Damon plays ex-car thief Max Da Costa, who’s on parole and living in the ruins of a 2154 Los Angeles that more closely resembles a shanty town. Max has always dreamt of living on Elysium, a space station orbiting Earth for the super rich who (literally) look down on the poor, overpopulated and polluted ruins of the planet. However, he has to settle instead for a factory job and having run-ins with the draconian robo-cops who do the bidding of their wealthy masters. When Max suffers an industrial accident and finds his life hanging in the balance, he agrees to undertake a dangerous mission for smuggler and hacker Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for a ticket to the station. But Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has other ideas and sends her attack dog, unhinged mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), to track him down.
Blomkamp proves once again that he’s the equal of James Cameron when it comes to world-building. The production design and vision that’s gone into Elysium is superb; whether it be something as grandiose as the 2001-esque spinning wheel look of Elysium , or as down and dirty as the graffiti that adorns the robot parole officer that coldly threatens to extend Max’s parole because it senses he’s being sarcastic. As a vision of the future, it’s dystopic and entirely believable.
However, a film needs more than great production design to succeed and it’s when you look more closely at the script and some of the performances you notice the cracks.
After a promising start, the film begins to tail off in the middle section and by the time the action moves to Elysium itself it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. The final 20-30 minutes are a mess and make you yearn for more successful sci-fi movies like Total Recall and The Terminator. Certain characters suddenly seem to go off in odd directions, leaving you scratching your head as to exactly what’s going on.
Normally as reliable as they come, Foster’s performance (and accent) is all over the place. She’s not helped by dialogue that’s as stilted as it is cringeworthy (she tells the President to “go off to a fundraiser or something” at one point) and her fate smacks of laziness by Blomkamp. Likewise, Copley must have winced at some of the lines he was forced to spit out, while his character starts off interestingly enough but ends up coming across like he’s in a different movie. And the less said about Moura’s screeching, overblown Spider the better.
Damon goes some way to counterbalancing the poor work of some of his co-stars with a gritty and engaging performance that sess him in Bourne-style kick-ass mode for chunks of the movie. Frankly, without Damon the film would have fallen flat on its face.
On the plus side, Blomkamp handles many of the action sequences well and indulges himself in the kind of splatter-tastic body dismemberment you don’t see too often in blockbusters.
However, far from engendering a state of perfect happiness, Elysium is a real let down after the promise shown by Blomkamp in District 9.