And so we finally alight on the fading frictionless edge of summer, with one more SF epic to wrap up another mediocre summer of perforated pixels orbiting adolescent antics, and just to set the tone I’ll say up front that this is one of the worst EVAC’s of the season. I was never fully seduced by 2009’s District Nine, it was a busily refreshing and attention grabbing debut from South African helmer Neil Blomkamp with a rather bludgeoning metaphor of apartheid and repression suffocated under a blistering array of impressive DIY special effects, a yarn which vaguely suffered from its abrupt tonal shift from found footage mechanisation to Hollywood-esque action set-pieces in its rather cluttered but skillful final maneuvers. In his new film Elysium that cluttered and claustrophobic future has been enhanced on a global and budgetary scale to envisage a sour world saddled with a disaffected proteian proletariat, a SF dystopian themed trope as reliable as blaster rifles or untrustworthy artificial intelligence, one needs only recall Metropolis to chart the contemporary concerns lurking under the febrile futurism. Directors and their crews can sometimes turn resource and financial constraints to their favour by improvising and finding fertile new methods to envisage the visions they have warping through their brains, and unfortunately Blomkamp seems to have suffered from that occasionally unavoidable second album / movie syndrome, building on their initial array of skills but failing to master new achievements, as this is a movie with a fantastically realised future world which sorely lacks any imagination in terms of plot, characterisation or perhaps most damagingly exhilarating action applications – a fatal flaw when you’re assaulting the outlying blockbuster Armada.
Los Angeles, 2154, and in the usual dystopian future theatre the world has been plunged into a congested environmental catastrophe of overpollution and overpopulation. The elite 1% have retired to the blissful idyll of Elysium, a sub-orbital contraption populated with generous gardens, gated mansions, tennis courts and bucolic water features, whilst the earthbound proles suffer in claustrophobic silence on the crust of the rapidly deteriorating terra firma, choked with litter and graffiti, scrabbling for dwindling resources in shanty towns and slums which stretch as far as the eye can see. Our reluctant hero is Max (Matt Damon) who in a clumsily arranged early sequence of flashbacks has dreamed of a transcendent rising to the pastures of the orbiting gentry, promising his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga) that she and he will one day reside in the luxurious heavens. As an adult these dreams have been crushed by a poverty-stricken oppression, Max being one of the fortunate few who actually has a job at the local android rendering plant, with nasty managers and aristocratic snobs sneering at their ragged workforce, pursuing the all-encompassing pursuit of profit at the behest of their Arcadian overlords. When an industrial malfunction infects Max with a lethal dose of radiation he enlists with the local resistance force to assault the remote palace of Elysium, a frantic mission to secure an antidote which conveniently aligns with Freya’s daughters cancerous medical condition, she only has hours to live and only the medical facilities of those with citizenship are entitled to receive life saving treatment. The elite are not without their own struggles for survival however as Defence Minister Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has nefarious plans to seize ultimate power, utilising a secret force of earth-bound agents to further her political career, her chief henchman Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) soon thrown into conflict with Max once he brainmelds the crucial computer code necessary to realign society and grant her absolute authority.
This film is initially frustrating given the rich playground that Blomkamp swiftly musters, it’s very much District Nine 2.0 with a similarly arrayed heterogeneous flavela of the undulating underclass, standing in sharp opposition to the idyllic refinement of the champagne scoffing bourgeois bastards. Once established he then fails to populate these blistering binaries with anything resembling a compelling story or empathic characters, the film collapsing into an uneven miasma of poorly orchestrated action beats and unsubtle contemporary statements – universal healthcare, an unfair gluttony of status and opportunities, the crushing of independent thought or agency – none of which are resourced or excavated beyond a skeletal graze of consideration. By the tedious closing limpwristed kinetics I was actively angry at this wasted opportunity, a fertile world building exercise which is subsequently settled with a lifeless and weightless tedium, I’m not necessarily asking for intelligent insights into current social problems as the best SF can achieve but when you can’t even arrange a coherent set-piece then Houston we definitively have a problem. Can we please, once and for all and ever more consign the shaky-cam and epileptic editing pattern aesthetics to the nearest and and deepest black hole, I simply cannot fathom the logic of spending hundreds of millions of dollars in crafting state of the art visual pyrotechnics and visions of future worlds only to then deny the audience the ability to actually digest the fruits of these digital labours, with machine gun bursts of images which elapse in a matter of frantic seconds, it’s a simply exhausting and alienating technique which leaves the audience distracted and ultimately dismayed – the punters I saw this with shuffled out of the theatre in a rather unmoved and unimpressed parade. Speaking of logical flaws the film is replete with constellations of implausible internal mechanics, can someone please explain to me the feasibility of a sub-orbital environmental hub being defended by a Terran agent with shoulder mounted surface to air missile systems? When you’re pushing into cinematic world building you need a logical internal structure, and flaws such as this can sink the entire empyrean enterprise, mentally throwing you out of the movie, defeated and dejected.
Blomkamp strikes me as a George Lucas clone, indelibly phenomenal in crafting wonderful and seductive realms, creating plausible, functioning, impressive and muddied future worlds, brilliant at populating these territories with endemic gadgets and glimpses of conceivable evolutions of technology and their credible imprints into society, but asymmetrically atrocious at performance guiding and empathy with dreadfully written characters, malfunctioning plot mechanics, promulgating a paralysing emphasis on the image over impression. Even then some of these potent technologically infected creations are introduced and then abandoned in Elysium, in particular the intriguing introduction of personal shields which was a fragrant SF touch that one presumes was lifted from Blomkamp’s production work on the now dormant Halo movie, but even within the framework of the Hollywood universe you simply have to care about these characters and their struggles for supremacy, their fight for equality always a subconscious connection of fealty to the audience who cough up their hard-earned time and money in order to see on-screen avatars stick it to the ‘man’ and realign the omnipotent inequalities of our present economic reality. Well, to put that rather less pretentiously it would have been cool to see a final scrap with the protagonist and antagonist fucking around with weapons and shields in a cat and mouse melee, when in fact we got a poorly arranged, humdrum and fatiguing final showdown.
Like anyone with half a molecule of critical facility I like and admire Jodie Foster, she can be a sympatric screen presence by presenting a simultaneous sense of fragility whilst harbouring hidden reservoirs of internal strength, so it pains me to report that she is simply terrible in this film, grossly and inconceivably miscast, flitting from French to American dialogue in a heartbeat for some undisclosed internal reason. I don’t think it’s entirely her fault, Delacourt is a sorely underwritten and unmotivated part as a stock generic power-hungry villain, she crucially lacks any venom or propellant for her thirstless quest for power. In one early scene they couldn’t even manage to successful sync her ADR with her lip movements which is a very odd technical oversight for such a big budget proposition, a glaring symptom of this films galaxy of flaws. Damon is Damon with his usual gritted teeth idealism, with Sharlto Copley actively repelling the audience with his barking brutality, your major villains really need some sense of charismatic compulsion to make their defeat symbolically satisfying. You can call me an unfeeling misanthrope but I also couldn’t give one good goddamn about Freya’s leukemia suffering child, when the film is clearly propelled on Damon’s medical doomsday clock the only function of adding a sick child to the mix is trite and unnecessary, a pitiful excuse in generating audience sympathy which dilutes the identification of our heroes pugilistic and bruising challenges. I find that something is always distinctly lacking from this current crop of 21st century SF escapades of the blockbuster brigade, a void of a plausible sense of scale, when you’re engineering a civilisation threatening odyssey you really have to establish the epoch shattering stakes, and like Oblivion this film fails to arrange the epic dimensions of the pixellated pilgrimage, as it appears that the entire arrogant elite of Elysium are guarded by a couple of robots and a half-dozen guys in ski-masks which simply doesn’t wash. Ending this summers pyrotechnics with a whimper rather than a bang Elysium remains earthbound and perfunctory, when it should have been agitating for the stars;