Film Review: Elysium

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Plot: The year is 2154. Earth is overpopulated and disease ridden, but the wealthy now live on Elysium, a habitat that hovers over Earth. When former car thief Max (Matt Damon) is over-exposed to radiation, he tries to find a way onto Elysium where his sickness can be cured, but Max ends up getting entangled in a political coup.

In 2009, Neill Blomkamp made his directorial debut with the brilliant District 9. In 2013, we have his follow up, Elysium…not so brilliant. Elysium is a massive disappointment, but just forgetting the Neill Blomkamp/District 9 factor, I would have walked out of this movie feeling the exact same way. Aside from a few promising ideas, this is boring, poorly constructed, and at times, filmed really badly. The stuff that works well is constantly being outshined by the stuff that doesn’t work at all. But I have to start with the characters, because this film certainly didn’t want to.

Aside from a bad flashback, the first 10-15 minutes of Elysium are actually quite good. We get to know our protagonist very well. Matt Damon as you would imagine is superb, bringing a lot of personality and likability to Max. Whether it’s a cop or parole officer, everything Max seems to argue with is a machine, and there’s a lot of great commentary and comedy that derives from this. I love the way Damon plays this. But as soon as Max suffers his accident, the film goes into a total nose dive. His character becomes very bland, just going through the motions. The movie loses it’s spunk and just becomes an average, albeit pretty looking sci-fi actioner.

The only other character that really gave me something was one of the villains, Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley. Copley hasn’t been in much yet, but he’s becoming a stellar talent. As Kruger, he’s very creepy and disturbing, but also provides a light comedic tone when appropriate. Copley’s charisma oozes out of the screen. He even throws in a few “hey, mans” just like in District 9.

Other than Max and Kruger, the film offers no other worthy characters. Jodie Foster is completely wasted, and that’s a real shame. Max has a few other allies you could care less about, William Fichtner plays the evil who gives a shit business guy, and the female/romantic lead, Frey (Alice Braga), was a complete throw away. The romantic subplot is supposed to be this hugely important part of the story, but they build it up through hackneyed flashbacks and really bad kid acting that rivals the quality of similar scenes in 2011’s Green Lantern, another mediocre sci-fi flick.

Aside from bad character development, the plot (while intriguing on paper) is confusing and lazily hashed together. There’s a lot of important scenes that should be given more explanation, but are just thrown together in two seconds. For example, Fichtner’s character saves a critical piece of data onto a thumb drive device, and the validity of this material seemed really easy to obtain. It should of had security all over the place, yet Fichtner just types a few things on his keyboard, and badda bing, he’s got it. It’s stuff like that where it’s just poorly explained, or the plot just makes stuff up when it’s convenient. This sounds like nitpicking, and I’m always the first one to suspend their disbelief on something, but we’re talking about primary plot points here.

One of the other key elements to this film that has to be addressed is the subtext. I love when movies have subtext, but not when it’s thrown in my face. This type of thing normally doesn’t bother me, but I can’t let it slide in Elysium. The movie goes out of its way to show its disdain for the upper class. They make sure everyone walking around on Elysium is straight out of an L.L. Bean catalogue to the point where it’s just annoying. There are even moments where kids are walking around in their checkered shorts, and just the way Blomkamp shoots these scenes, you get the feeling you aren’t supposed to like them. Cut me a break. It even looks like Fichtner’s character has “rich” written on his face…wow. I’m fine with social commentary, but don’t let it dominate your movie. It’s crap like this that takes away from the characters and story.

Speaking of the way scenes are shot, despite a very mediocre second act, the third act does get a lot better. There’s some good tension, and I still cared about Max’s character. But just like with everything else in this movie, whenever it does something good, it’s out shadowed by something bad. SHAKY CAM ALERT! SHAKY CAM ALERT! There’s a cool fight between Max and Kruger towards the end, although I guess I have to take the movie’s word for it, because you can’t actually see it! I’m really at the point where I’m going to start walking out of films if I see this again. I just want to understand the madness. Do people actually like this technique? If there was a national poll where people preferred this style of filmmaking as opposed to a more steady camera style of action, I’d be disappointed, but at least I’d understand. Is it a budget thing? Will studios not have to pay choreographers or something if they film it this way? I’m just trying to understand why action in film is heading towards this direction…please help me understand.

In reading this review, you probably think I detest this movie, but its really not that bad. The non action scenes are filmed pretty well, it looks gorgeous, I like Damon and Copley, and it’s fairly entertaining for the most part. Its just unfortunate that the negative aspects stick out like a sore thumb. I can’t help but compare this to a similar movie from earlier this year, Oblivion. While Oblivion certainly had its problems, that film comes off better because there is a MUCH bigger emphasis on the characters, and you just cared a lot more, making for a really powerful ending. With Elysium, I was just kind of waiting for it to end. Neill Blomkamp is still a talented director, and I’m interested to see what he does next, but this simply was not a strong effort.

Rating: 6 out of 10 (‘meh’)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.