Movie Review: Elysium- Neill Blomkamp’s Sophomore Science-Fiction Actioner Possesses Thrills and a Unique Design but Lacks Character, Intrigue, and Convincing Socio-Political Commentary

elysium_1Expectations in cinema, once you’ve made a lasting impression, are hard to suppress or let alone match, especially for the likes of writer/director Neill Blomkamp who delivered in his cinematic debut a finely constructed, socio-politically conscious, and explosively kinetic science-fiction actioner entitled District 9 that not only surprised audiences worldwide it also garnished critical acclaim accompanied with four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Through the film’s finely crafted elements combining well-developed believable characters, inventive production design, gripping special effects, and riveting action Neill Blomkamp secured an unrealistic standard, especially in entering the black void of creativity that is Hollywood, to continue to create highly conceptual and undeniably original content for the remainder of his career. Unfortunately even if comparative standards were removed Blomkamp’s sophomore science-fiction actioner entitled Elysium doesn’t generate the same entertaining spark that his first feature secured mostly because it’s a perfect example that sometimes more in expenses, cast, and budget can ultimately lead to less in character, insight, and quality. It’s not as if Elysium is a catastrophic disappointment standing on its own because despite the questionable acting, the clearly neglected dialogue, and the pretentious socio-political lecture ingrained in the concept it does possess a thoroughly unique production design, inventive technological creations and weaponry, and some truly thrilling action sequences that Blomkamp has proven already he can deliver. Science-fiction has always been a genre where the concepts venture into questioning the current societal conventions and morals through imagined realities with consequences but Elysium isn’t even a thought provoking lecture on any of the issues it thinly tackles, such as the ills of the haves and have-nots, the apathy towards the blue collar worker, or the effects of immigration. Instead of creating a truly remarkable science-fiction actioner with original content, intriguing characters, and a well-conceived socio-political slant Neill Blomkamp has instead created a mechanized Hollywood blockbuster standard that lacks engaging characters, mimics human emotionality, and replaces substance for argumentative platitudes. Simply put, Elysium is no District 9 but in removing comparative judgment and allowing the film to stand on its own it possesses enough energetic thrills and unique set construction to make it minimally enjoyable yet disappointingly unsubstantial.

The weighing issue that makes Elysium such a disappointment is contained in the film’s foundational script framework both in conceptual imagination and basic character construction since the former possesses a limitation on actual thought and the latter doesn’t necessarily exist. Elysium opens up in the year 2154 setting up a futuristic dystopia where the unprivileged working class poor remain on the garbage heap known as Earth where overpopulation, pollution, and a general lack of upkeep has made it a barely habitable wasteland and the rich live in a private space station known as “Elysium,” a borrowed name for a heavenly afterlife from the Greeks. Protagonist Max (Matt Damon), a reformed parolee trying to work the honest life, gets mortally irradiated at his environmentally unsafe place of work and must find his way up to “Elysium” by any means necessary in order to utilize their state of the art health services that heals all diseases. Conceptually Neill Blomkamp’s script just lacks a general atmosphere of believability because it substitutes logical reflection with vague assumption never clearly explaining how things got so divided, why the medical devices can’t be utilized on Earth, or when basic quality of life improvement ceased to continue. Instead of just creating a fantastical reality Neill Blomkamp seems intent on lecturing his audiences about modern societal ills but it’s the worst kind of lecture, one that seems as modern and relevant as Paul Ehrlich’s disproven population bomb theory and filled with flimsy platitudes that have absolutely zero substance. This wouldn’t be such an issue with the overall film if everything else from engaging characters that transform naturally and an intriguing plot were evident but they too are clearly missing from Neill Blomkamp’s self-righteous soap box. None of the characters seem remotely believable, especially when compared to the pristinely organic visual environment that surrounds them, as they are plagued with stilted, uninspired dialogue that seems to make them even less believable than their spontaneous choices. They are instead oddly robotic creations of Neill Blomkamp to drive forward a thin socially-conscious story without bothering to keep relevance, logic, or character motivation in sync with the overall creation. Elysium has the stench of being manipulative and sanctimonious in its desire to be socially-conscious which wouldn’t be a problem, whether you are in agreement with its intended perspective or not, if all of the elements consistent with Neill Blomkamp’s standard were still there, including well-rounded characters with purpose and an engaging plot where audience involvement exists.

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Where Elysium fails to inspire in all-encompassing concept, developed character, and substantial contemplation it inevitably makes up entertaining ground in its visual presentation from the polar opposite representations of Earth and “Elysium” to the fast paced graphic violence that is definitely reminiscent of Blomkamp’s action and production work in District 9. Though the story for Elysium doesn’t exactly capture the imagination it’s the enrapturing visuals that fill in the believable gaps because everything in the visuals, whether it’s the designs of the robots or the heavily detailed environments that define the dilapidated Earth or the thriving “Elysium,” generates a feeling of organic creation where the world that surrounds these characters is visually real. Great thanks should be given to the production design from the location scouts to the designers to the visual effects artists because without their precise detail and imaginary execution than Elysium wouldn’t have inspired much of anything except a reason not to do another science-fiction actioner that squanders a great deal of cinematic resources. Neill Blomkamp’s main skill is clearly in his finely tuned sense of cinematic direction and utilizes that throughout the majority of Elysium where action takes center stage over his lack of character development. There is a sense of the unexpected with his delivery of spontaneous bouts of graphic violence and kinetic pacing with each sequence that gives Blomkamp’s films a refreshing energy that doesn’t exist in even a majority of blockbuster releases. Once the action begins it pretty much becomes a relentless bombardment of robot destruction, exploding bodies, and inventive technological weaponry that keeps you visually entertained as it loses track of why things are occurring only to reacquaint the audience with the film’s equally relentless lecture. It’s just unfortunate that this filmmaker’s ability to create an incredibly palpable and visually pulpy science-fiction fantasy has been weighted down by an uninspired drift towards heavy handed storytelling that doesn’t even come close to the subtlety and imagination of District 9. If Elysium does prove one thing it’s that Neill Blomkamp is definitely a visionary director but might not necessarily be the science-fiction auteur we might have expected of him.

Though the action sequences, the production design, and the overall visual atmosphere have a convincing execution it’s just interesting to witness a majority of the acting performances end up coming off arguably lazy or inappropriately disconnected from everything else surrounding them. It’s quite possible that the stale dialogue is what seemingly makes a great deal of the performances from Matt Damon to Jodie Foster appear surprisingly bland but the usually charismatic Damon seems to casually sink in this pseudo-heroic tale. Damon does possess the physicality in demeanor and execution to be a convincing action hero but there’s just something missing from his performance where convincing motivation, interest, and feeling seem to be missing often throughout Elysium. Foster as the cold and calculating politician that seeks  to take control of “Elysium” doesn’t have the menacing demeanor needed to be believable and that weakness is also accentuated by her awkward futuristic accent that seems to make every scene she delivers verbally even more excruciating to sit through. Some of the side characters played by competent character actors such as William Fichtner and Diego Luna all bring a confident believability to their brief roles giving Blomkamp’s overall acting atmosphere a decent amount of confidence. But it’s clear that Blomkamp’s chemistry on the direction of actors is set mostly on the great Sharlto Copley’s shoulders as the villainous rogue sleeper agent Kruger whose presence immediately demands attention but whose accent gets increasingly more difficult to understand. Elysium is a completely uneven affair when comparing the lack of quality in its writing to the admirable creativity in its direction and the performances find an uncomfortable place right in the middle with some moments being more convincing than others. Perhaps if the script had fleshed out these characters as more complex individuals with clear motivations, naturally developing changes, and non-cliché slanted personalities then Elysium would have had another element of confidence in its favor but instead it never captivates on the heroic possibilities of its protagonist or the complex villainous intentions of the two unpleasant antagonists.

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With the arrival of Elysium four years after the surprising and refreshing debut of Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9 it’s safe to say that the visionary science-fiction director has found his strengths in visual presentation, from the detailed production designs to the graphically kinetic action sequences, but has severe weaknesses in consistent conceptual storytelling. Subtlety was left at the door when Blomkamp decided he wanted to attempt tackling some perceived relevant and modern societal ills as heavy handed lecturing took the place of emotionally conveying serious contemplations making a rather unfulfilling and disorganized science-fiction work. Missing the mark on societal criticism wouldn’t have been so damaging if the other elements in the intended script from developed characters, an intriguing plot, and finely written dialogue were there to prop it up but unfortunately each and every one of those elements are missing in Neill Blomkamp’s latest script. High expectations following the arrival of District 9 might have put Blomkamp in a position where delivering an equally compelling work was near impossible but even in judging Elysium on basic standards there is a great deal missing from making it a complete and substantial science-fiction reflection. Luckily the film still possesses Blomkamp’s remarkable visionary sense that sees the believable visual construction of a futuristic dystopia and some truly engaging action thrills that are very much on par with the action sequences of District 9. Original creativity and the aim for a conceptual framework should always be applauded and for that Elysium does attempt to venture into risky storytelling areas but because of the uneven performances, the decrepit dialogue, and the shallow thoughtfulness it never inspires or surprises us to the extent Blomkamp’s first feature did.

Grade: C

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