I really loved “Elysium” for the first half hour or so.
“This is great!” I remember thinking. “All those naysaying critics were wrong!”
But my enthusiasm had waned by the end of the film. Which isn’t to say that “Elysium” isn’t a good movie, or that it isn’t worth seeing. It is! It just doesn’t live up to its early promise, or the high standards set by director Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 debut feature, “District 9,” which I loved. Much like the summer’s other big tentpole movies, “Elysium” has moments of brilliance, but not enough of them to qualify as a great film.
Like “District 9,” “Elyisum” is an allegory, set in a futuristic urban hellscape that’s not so very different from the world we live in today. But where “District 9” offered a tightly focused take on apartheid, “Elysium” is overflowing with issues: drones, extrajudicial killing, immigration, income inequality, lack of access to health care, and environmental degradation. The film’s surfeit of ideas is one of the things I liked about it, especially after watching “Pacific Rim,” which suffers from a dearth of ideas. But “Elysium” doesn’t necessarily flesh out any of its ideas, barreling towards its conclusion at a frenetic pace and devolving into a chaotic shoot-out and fist-fight toward the end. I think it’s the 25th film I’ve seen this summer in which the hero and archvillian duke it out on an elevated platform, punching each other in the face and hurling each other into railings and walls, despite having the most amazing technology at their disposal.
The premise of “Elysium” is great: Earth has become an impoverished, polluted dystopia, populated solely by the poor, while the rich have decamped to Elysium, a sleek and beautiful space station where people can heal themselves from sickness and injury in medical pods. The people of “Elysium” are aware of the pods, and a smuggler named Spider (Wanger Moura) periodically arranges for sick people to fly to Elysium, in the hopes of breaking into the homes of the wealthy and using their medical pods to cure their aches and pains. When a reformed car thief named Max (Matt Damon) is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work, he asks Spider to help him reach Elysium; Spider agrees to do so if Max will carry out a dangerous heist that involves downloading information from the mind of the evil corporate mogul who manufactures the drones and robots that keep the people of Earth in their place. Meanwhile, the Elysium secretary of defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who looks fantastic, but has a really weird accent that grows increasingly distracting as the film progresses), is plotting a coup.
Anyway, that’s a lot to take in, and I kind of agree with the film critic James Berardinelli, who suggested that the material might have been better as an HBO miniseries, a format that would have allowed Blomkamp to flesh out his ideas and characters. As it is, “Elysium” often feels like a lesser take on the sorts of class issues that were handled adeptly and hilariously in the Gary Shteyngart novel “Super Sad True Love Story,” which depicted a world where cities such as New York were being transformed into “lifestyle hubs” for the rich. (There’s a scene where Max visits a DMV-like government building and speaks with a robot that had me flashing back to the computer-generated otter in “Super Sad True Love Story.”)
The problem, of course, is that “Elysium” is not a novel, and its story often feels truncated as a result; the film’s central love story, between Max and his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) is never as moving or poignant as it should be, and Frey’s sick daughter is more of an inspirational plot point than a real character.
Much of “Elysium” looks fantastic, and I remain impressed with Blomkamp’s talent, and his willingness to make films that are about something, rather than nothing. But he might be better when working on a smaller budget, as he did with “District 9,” and has the freedom to pursue his ideas without studio interference.
“Elysium” is not a great film, but it establishes Blomkamp as a unique and visionary director, and I’m hoping his third film will blow me away.
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