‘Elysium’ Has a Ton of Underutilized Ideas

[6 January 2014]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

Director Neill Blomkamp is in a bit of a rough patch, suffering from a rare disorder known as “auteur’s trap” and, sadly, perhaps it’s inevitable.

When 2009’s District 9 came out, it was unlike most any other sci-fi film we had seen: an allegorical class structure critique that brazenly (and seamlessly) transitioned from full-bore documentary-style filmmaking into big-budget action fare, and more than that, it did all these things with panache, serving up a healthy “wow” factor while also remaining grounded in a solid emotional conceit. District 9 was a huge success, was deservedly nominated for a good share of Oscars, and made the world wonder what Blomkamp, the man whom Peter Jackson insisted would do a great job with tackling a Halo movie (despite the studio balking at giving a tentpole to a guy who hadn’t made a full-length yet), would set his sights on next.

Thus, with big-name stars like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in the marquee, Elysium seemed like a surefire bet for all involved: Blomkamp would have a larger canvas to work his magic upon, and the world couldn’t wait to see what he was going to accomplish. While Elysium isn’t a bad film, audiences were a bit shocked by the fact that after a project as out-and-out visionary as District 9, not only did its follow-up rehash a lot of the same tropes as before, but after the unconventional means that District 9 got to its point, Elysium relies on clich├ęs to get its message across, and film suffers because of it.

Elysium‘s plot revolves around class warfare, as the rich and well-to-do have used their considerable means to escape to a gigantic rotating space station named Elysium, filled with the nicest views and the most advanced in medical technology, capable of reconstructing wounds or curing cancer in less than a minute. In a domineering Secretary of Defense role, Delacourt (Foster) keeps Elysium safe from numerous boarding attempts by stray refugees from Earth, which has become akin to a ravaged third world nation.

One of Earth’s humble civilians is Max (Damon), trying to make a clean living after years of stealing cars and other various criminal activities. One day, after a work accident that borders on the comical (“If you don’t fix that door jam, I’ll find someone who will!” is basically what his factory foreman shouts to Max), Max only has a few days left to live, so decides to make one last mission to get to Elysium, carrying with him the daughter of the woman he has known ever since he was a little boy, hoping she can use Elysium’s machinery to fix her medical ailment.

What hurts Elysium the most isn’t the story, which by itself isn’t all that bad. No, what ultimately sinks Elysium‘s weighty concepts is the very, very, very broadly-defined characters that Blomkamp has written. While Max’s arc is only satisfying due to the fact that it adheres to every single underdog action-hero archetype there is, it’s Jodie Foster’s Delacourt that is absent of any real motivation, depth, or actual personality. Her intention is the film is “to get more power” and nothing else. Thus, when she deals with the morally conflicted business owner John Carlyle (the always reliable William Fichtner) or the worried President of Elysium (the great Faran Tahir), those interactions seem to hold weight and meaning, as the characters she’s talking to have personalities and ideas all their own.

Jodie Foster as Delacourt in Elysium

Jodie Foster as Delacourt.

Sometimes, though, the actor is the one who brings the personality to the character, going above and beyond what a thin script would provide. Shalrto Copley, Blomkamp’s longtime friend and star of District 9, has really been showing how much of a chameleon he is as an actor, going from District 9 to The A-Team to his role here, where he plays a psychologically unstable bounty-hunter named Kruger who not only tries to hunt down Max with a rabid bloodlust, but also has his own need for power, and proceeds to try to become ruler of Elysium during a maniacal military coup later on.

His character, again, is thinly defined, but Copley gives Kruger all the raging id he could possibly find, obsessed only with his job and his own self, regardless of who or what gets in the way. He is responsible for some of the best action sequences in the film, and, in many ways, feels more developed than Delacourt, although, admittedly, that in itself is not a hard bar to pass.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Elysium isn’t its broadly drawn characters or stereotypical plot, no. What’s most maddening about it is how Blomkamp has filled this movie with a ton of great ideas, nearly all of which are vastly underutilized. The weapons he develops, just as with District 9, are just plain fun to watch as they make things blow up, and the various robots that go about policing the various cities are very functional, gloriously impersonal, and one of the film’s more clearly-developed ideas.

The best scene in the whole movie, however, might very well be the one that’s alluded to so frequently in the trailers, when Max has to go and plead his case before a robotic parole officer, stationary and devoid of any nuance, and the various interpretive issues that creates. It’s a great idea applied to a great scene, and one that doesn’t really afford itself the chance to be revisited. That’s a shame, because even with all of Elysium‘s conventional Hollywood bluster, his most inventive concepts still stand out.

The various extras in the Blu-ray, however, are as self-important as behind-the-scenes featurettes can get. While Matt Damon is fun to watch as he goofs about on set, joking with the actors during filming, it’s the various producers that drone on and on about how good a project this is, the chills they get during filming, the fact that you aren’t always lucky enough to have both a great director and great script and here they have both, etc. It’s mindless navel-gazing, and although a few facts prove entertaining—mainly that Blomkamp hired the composer after seeing a YouTube clip and commissioned him for the full film then and there; the fact that (spoiler alert) this is the first time in history that Jodie Foster gets killed on camera—these nuggets of info aren’t by themselves fascinating enough to be worth recommending.

There is still a lot to like and appreciate with Elysium, especially its action sequences, but even those would be made better by a single facet: we’d be more invested if we cared about what the characters. The film’s ambitions are undeniable, it’s just a shame the same can’t be said for the plot or characters.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177774-elysium/