150TH REVIEW: Elysium (2013)

Elysium (USA, 2013)
Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga 

This is the 150th Review I have written since launching Mumby at the Movies.

In my review of Source Code, I talked about the perils associated with new film-makers being offered bigger budgets after their first film had been a hit. So often the appeal of more money, or even the simple act of going to Hollywood, can undo a young director's principles, turning intelligence into drudgery and discipline into indulgence.
While Duncan Jones' sophomore effort fulfilled on the promise of his debut Moon, Elysium is more of a difficult second album. Neil Blomkamp is given a budget nearly four times that of District 9, and attempts to apply his distinctive style and interests to what is, superficially at least, a much more mainstream project. The end result has many of the same problems as District 9, but it does fulfil of some of its potential, offering a slightly more complex story and a few nice touches along the way.
It may seem premature to talk about recurring interests or motifs in a director who has to date only made two features. But in many ways Elysium is a continuation of all the things that Blomkamp covered in District 9; it's not a spiritual sequel, but it does occupy very similar territory. We are fortunate in this regard that Blomkamp's interests are intriguing and wide-ranging - he doesn't just care about achieving certain kinds of explosions, or making very pretty costumes.
Both of Blomkamp's films are set in futuristic dystopia, which are dominated by pollution, waste, overpopulation, shortages and organised crime. The opening shot is reminiscent of the city-scape opening of Blade Runner, and both films are interested in mankind's negative impact of the environment. But while Blade Runner looks at this stylistically, drawing on the conventions of film noir, Elysium is much more rough and gritty, set primarily in harsh daylight and with most of the conflict taking place outdoors.
Other recurring themes see Blomkamp departing slightly from the set-up and characters of District 9. He still has a strong interest in men being augmented or altered by machines, but this time around the set-up is less rooted in body horror. There's one gruesome scene where Matt Damon's suit is bolted into him, but otherwise the approach is much more mechanical. As before the main protagonist is seeking to help a family, but this time he has an active stake in the relationship rather than reacting to his own wrongdoing. And as before the government operates above the rule of law to ensure the lifestyles of the rich, white and upstanding are preserved - only this time, the geographical hierarchy extends far beyond a single country.
Like all good sci-fi, Elysium is a film driven by ideas, and it uses characteristics of the future to shed light on the problems we face in the present. Like District 9 there are a number of different ideas in the mix here, each of which could have formed the kernel of a perfectly decent film all on its own. But while District 9 ultimately had more ideas than it really knew how to develop, this film fulfils on quite a number of them to a reasonably satisfying degree.
The story of Elysium is on one level an inversion of stories and myths about heavenly messiahs. Instead of a saviour coming down from above to heal the broken world, the broken world sends a hero up to destroy the corrupt forces of 'heaven' (Elysium) and bring forth its riches - like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods in the Greek myths. The design of Elysium itself resembles a pentangle, and the lifestyles of its inhabitants is lavish, like the pursuits the Greek gods supposedly enjoyed.
Having set up this idyllic world in space, the film deserves credit for not just pulling another Soylent Green on us. Elysium is so idyllic, and its character so deeply rooted in 1970s sci-fi, that our natural suspicions are that it covers a dark secret. The film could have just built towards a big, clumsy twist - for instance, that the healing machines are powered by the souls of dead children, or something like that. But instead it powers on through with its character interaction as all things quickly come to a head. So many films with twists seem to have twists for the sake of it; this film deliberately eschews this approach and it works wonders.
The film also explores inequality, specifically how advances in technology both imprison and emancipate the poor. Technology in the 22nd century is such that machines can cure cancer and reconstruct broken bones, but the white heat of technology is solely in the hands of the rich and the criminal. The exclusive nature of the healing machines shapes the different class attitudes towards technology; what Earth civilians perceive as a lifesaver is taken for granted by the rich in space. Status based upon technology has substituted status based upon property or achievement, just as in our society having the latest phone can often seem as important as having a degree or owning a house.
Many aspects of Elysium tread very close to our reality - so close in fact that we take it for granted that they will become real in a matter of years. It's open to debate whether this should be comforting or unnerving (the film doesn't really have an opinion), but Blomkamp should be praised at least for his attention to detail. It's not that far-fetched to imagine computers which sync with our minds, with our brains effectively becoming human hard drives. It's equally believable that governments would go above the law to protect the lifestyles of the elite at the expense of the innocent masses. You might even argue, with both modern warfare and the banking crisis, that this is already happening.
Like its predecessor, Elysium is replete with references to other science fiction films. As before they are all from films that are appealing to sci-fi fans, in both their ideas and aesthetics - but as before the references are a little too obvious. Matt Damon's battle suit immediately recalls Ripley's get-up in the climactic battle in Aliens, while the design of Elysium is dangerously close to the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kruger's search droids are eerily similar to the probes in The Empire Strikes Back, and there's even one very clunky nod to Star Wars, with an image of the Death Star being on clear view in one scene.
On top of its obvious references, there are a number of other problems with Elysium. While the film aims for intelligence, and is thematically successful for the most part, the logistics of this dystopia are pretty dumb. No matter how invested you are in Kruger as a character, it's pretty hard to believe that he could shoot down a spaceship standing on Earth with a rocket launcher. Had the film not been so fast-paced, this would have been a genuine jump-the-shark moment, after which all credibility would have been lost.
For all its interest in man being combined with hardware, the film never really clarifies how the human-data relationship works. If it's so important to preserve the data carried in Max's brain, why do characters use a taser to subdue him when such a current could potentially fry the drive? How does Max's suit actually prevent him from dying, and why for only a few days? And why does uploading data from someone's brain to a computer result in their death? This last point is indicative of the film as a whole: it fits thematically (Max is the messiah) but not so much narratively.
The performances in Elysium range from the engaging to the confusing. Matt Damon continues to be one of the most reliable leading men in Hollywood, throwing himself into the role and being every bit as physical as he was in the Bourne series many years ago. Jodie Foster's accent wanders as much as Russell Crowe's in Robin Hood, but she makes up for this in her icy screen presence. As for Sharlto Copley, he gives a fun performance in spite of his character; it's a lazy 1980s trope to make South Africans the bad guys, but he's such an enjoyable ham that it doesn't seem to matter.
Elysium is a marginal improvement on Blomkamp's first effort, though it still demonstrates how much he has to learn as a director. The ideas it raises are topical and interesting, and the film is very well-paced with good performances. But it struggles to carve out an identity that's entirely its own due to half-witted logistics and all-too-obvious references. Blomkamp won't able to pull this kind of trick again, but for now the end result is still enjoyable.


I caught Elysium at the Tyneside Cinema during a holiday. Click here to find out why it's my all-time favourite cinema.

NEXT REVIEW: Looper (2012)