The year is 2159 and while Earth has turned into an overpopulated slum planet, the wealthy have relocated to an orbiting space station which caters to their every need and, from which, the planet below is harshly governed. Matt Damon top lines as a lowly factory worker who must make his way to the space station named “Elysium” if he is to find a cure to the fatal dose of radiation he was exposed to in a work related accident. Unfortunately, Elysium’s minister of defence (a very nasty Jodie Foster) takes a dim view of those Earth peasants who attempt to sneak past her atmospheric defences and usually resorts to blowing them out of their ragged socks. However, when the first minister attempts to curb her extremist leanings, she sets about engineering a coup that Damon just happens to get caught up in. But not before he is surgically connected to a metal exoskeleton that makes him as strong as the droids which Elysium uses to enforce the law and the similarly exoskeletonised mercenaries who Foster uses to chase down Damon when he accidentally downloads the plans for her little coup (don’t ask!).
On the face of things, Neill Blomkamp’s eagerly awaited follow up to his directorial debut, the South African sleeper hit District 9, ticks a number of boxes: a 1980’s esque sci-fi escapism; a director who recently made an impressive debut in the genre; and one of the 21st century’s most watchable action stars. And for the first 40 or 50 minutes, it more or less lives up to that promise. Damon shows a likeable presence as the blue collar everyman who like Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid, reluctantly gets caught up in the political instability of his world. The film has a distinctive look, captured stunningly in 4K, and the visual effects are elegant and well conceived. And then there’s the hint of a time honoured bad guy dynamic where a sinister yet erudite mastermind uses a greasy thug to do her dirty work (think Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox or Michael Ironside and err…Ronny Cox).
Alas, as much as all this plays to an 80’s vintage of science fiction, this turns out to be very much a 21st century movie with all the muddled scriptwriting problems that blockbusters of this century are almost invariably beset with. Instead of taking the neat sci-fi premise and telling a simple straight forward story on the back of it, Blomkamp tacks a number of weak subplots onto the basic plot. What the purpose of these side plots are is anyone’s guess. Is it an attempt to make the movie something more than ‘just’ an action sci-fi? Are there deluded executives demanding the story have a “social angle” because some irrelevant focus group indicated a place for it? Whatever the reason, it pulverises the otherwise sleek concept.
Even without the plot confusion, the script becomes increasingly coarse. After an encouraging introduction, the villains fail to develop beyond their archetypes and Blomkamp uses them and the heartlessness of the new world system merely to flick switches in the mind of the audience. Sharlto Copley’s (Blomkamp’s leading man from District 9) central bad guy becomes more and more laughable in his nastiness and with the persistent and frankly ridiculous overuse of slow motion (coupled with the usual formidable score), Blomkamp gives the audience what seems like forever to ponder just how mean he is. Foster shows more potential but she too is painfully static in her cruelty. Not surprisingly for a film which is saturated with side plots, it’s the secondary characters that suffer most. Alice Braga is just a token presence and an actress with her talent should really start becoming concerned with potential typecasting. But at least she’s good with what she’s given. Wagner Moura on the other hand adds a new layer of awfulness to the catalogue of sci-fi’s bad performances with an altogether misjudged turn as the lesser of two evils whom Damon inevitably sides with against the elite. Positives notes on the acting front are sounded out by Damon himself who yet again proves a safe pair of hands for driving a blockbuster and a sinister William Fichtner who delivers the goods with his usual interesting degree of edge.
Technically, Elysium similarly suffers much more than it should. The concept design is rich and the immaculate visual effects would have done every bit of it justice if it were not for Julian Clark and Lee Smith’s bewildering editing. Every one of the fight sequences, of which there are many, is rendered nearly unintelligible by some frankly amateurish assemblage. Of course, Blomkamp’s stylistic ambitions played a major role here but somebody needed to speak up and steady the ship. Speaking of the fight sequences, as the movie wears on, the metal exoskeleton becomes an increasingly bemusing affectation for it really just isn’t an integral part of the story. This leaves the audience to notice it at the most random times and wonder what the hell its point is!
In the end, Elysium qualifies as a seriously flawed but visually and conceptually rousing piece of entertainment which fans of 80’s sci-fi in particular will probably accept – if only because we’ve been starved of classy science fiction for too long.
Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2014