Although different in both particulars and scale from Elysium, a look back at District 9 can illuminate how Elysium came to be what it is. District 9 made an instant name for debut director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp, with its vivid, barely-even-allegorical Apartheid storyline and its ingenious design and effects, becoming a substantial hit worldwide. Despite a faux-documentary conceit that doesn’t really hold up, District 9 is a terrific movie, solid SF, and tremendously satisfying emotionally, however heartbreaking its final image. And so Elysium, with its bigger budget and movie stars, not to mention similarly socially conscious subject matter, is one of the most anticipated movies, SF or otherwise, in 2013. Can it possibly hold up?
It may have been possible for it to do so, but Elysium is, tragically, a huge mess in ways that carry over the wrong parts of District 9 (the attention deficit to detail) rather than the right (the freshness and novelty of setting). It’s a mess with some potential, though: in 2154, the wealthy have abandoned the surface of the Earth for an orbiting paradise—that looks like a cross between Larry Niven’s Ringworld and the space station in 2001—called Elysium, where among other luxuries healthcare has progressed to the point where automated, in-home surgical beds can cure even terminal cancer in seconds. In stark contrast, Earth is a bleak, impoverished dystopia, with overflowing hospitals that can barely treat the sick, and robot police and bureaucrats make day-to-day life miserable. In this world, a factory worker (Matt Damon) finds himself needing to get to Elysium to undo the effects of a horrific accident and save his own life. To do so, he needs to turn to the criminal underworld, and finds himself aligned against a dangerous array of antagonists, principally a power-hungry Elysium security chief (Jodie Foster), and her preferred black ops agent, a dangerously unhinged mercenary (Sharlto Copley).
The basic premise—Matt Damon needs to get to Elysium—is simple enough. The problem is, given the nature and variety of obstacles in his way, the resolution of that quest is a little too simple as well. Without spoiling particulars, his path from the gutter to the stars is paved with coincidence upon convenient contrivance upon deus ex machina. In some movies, it’s possible to dismiss this kind of thing, in exchange for some awesome action or cool creatures or some such. Elysium presents itself as, and has clear ambitions to be, something more: a smarter science-fiction movie, one with commentary on the divide between the rich and poor and the self-defeating measures the former take to preserve their hegemony over the latter. A different kind of divide ultimately thwarts Elysium in that goal, one between the intelligence and conscience of its premise and the clumsiness of its plot. I use “plot” on purpose, because it all feels like a blueprint, plowing through the various checkpoints that will inevitably lead to Matt Damon getting to Elysium to confront the baddies, rather than a story, something where actions are taken by people.
On the other hand, while none of the characters are particularly fleshed-out or interesting on their own merits, most of them are played well. Jodie Foster struggles to find anything to do beyond just “be evil,” but she’s an accomplished enough thespian that even that’s interesting for the relatively limited amount of time she’s on screen. Alice Braga similarly struggles in an underwritten “love interest” role, although she manages to inject some life into it. The person who really takes the movie over, though, is Sharlto Copley. As Kruger, the amoral, incomprehensible mercenary, he’s the one unpredictable element in the movie—not just because his accent is so sublimely thick almost all anyone can hear is the cursing—and thus the most interesting; while you may not know what he’s going to do next, it’s a safe bet it’ll involve extreme violence and salty language. He’s a terrific villain, deserving of a better movie.
It’s not a total loss. Sharlto Copley greatness aside, there are some interesting design ideas in Elysium, and the social commentary hinted at in its premise is, if not fully realized, at least examined. It’s a rare enough movie these days that even tries for such things, and that’s this diverse in its casting, that Elysium and Blomkamp should be commended for that much, at least. But the cast remains faces and bodies rather than people, and the design is obscured by a constantly-shaking camera that renders almost everything in every action scene almost completely illegible. The rare exception, such as one splendid slow-motion demolition of an antagonistic robot by a futuristic machine gun, serve as teasers of what might have been if Blomkamp had kept the camera still and let us watch the people, robots, and people/robots punch each other.
Ah, what might have been. It’s important to note, though, that as much a downer as the above has been, we’ll always have District 9, and Blomkamp pretty clearly has another good movie in him. This one isn’t it, but as frustrating as it is, there are still glimpses (some extended) of Blomkamp’s talent. But it’s probably best to go in with expectations adjusted downward, just to be on the safe side.