After his world-wide success with District 9, which was acclaimed critically, as well as being a great financial success, South African director Neil Blomkamp returns to the director’s chair to give us his second outing, Elysium, staring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley.
In 2154, Earth is divided between the poor, who make up most of the population, and live in slums covering the entire surface of the planet, and the (very) rich, who live on an orbital space station, Elysium, where every disease can be cured instantly thanks to sophisticated technologies, and where everything flows with abundance. When Max (Matt Damon), a former convict trying to find his way back into society, gets critically injured at the plant where he is working, his only option is to try to reach Elysium and get some treatment before Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her mercenary Kruger ( Sharlto Copley), get hold of him.
Elysium is a slick looking science-fiction movie, where each shot is beautifully composed, confirming Neil Blomkamp’s skills as a strong director with a great sense of balance between special effects, and a more rough and gritty vibe which he manages to carry across all along the movie. Elysium in particular offers one of these science-fiction landscapes that will thrill the fans of this genre, with its huge modern villas and its parks all packed into a giant white wheel rotating in space… This is a very believable and intriguing sight, and I ended up wanting to see a lot more of the giant space station: the story mostly focuses on the revolutionary medical treatments that Elysium’s technology can offer, but it would have been interesting to see, for example, which activities the citizens of Elysium spend their time on, and what other possibilities the technology offers.
Elysium is a very enjoyable film, thanks to its successful use of special effects, as well as solid performances from the cast: Matt Damon is once again very believable as an action hero grounded in reality, while Jodie Foster seems to have a lot of fun playing a nasty ruler plotting a coup d’état (I personally did not have any problems with her accent). South African actor Sharlto Copley steals the show like he did in District 9 and the A-Team, composing a brutal and furious villain, dangerously bending towards (if not embracing) total madness. There is something about his performance that puts him apart in the summer’s offering of villains and bad guys: his acting and his physicality are totally in sync with the director’s vision and his energetic and visceral directing: Copley is a wild animal set loose, and we are looking forward to the actor going back to it.
Unfortunately, Elysium is not a perfect film: strangely it seems to insist on a lot of unnecessary aspects while forgetting to focus on the fascinating possibilities that it could have introduced to us. The script is often a little bit clumsy, especially in the way it deals with the characters’ motivations. It would have been enough for Max to attempt to save his own life, and to want to reach Elysium for that purpose, but instead he has to cope with a sick little girl, who also needs to reach the space station for the same reasons. It would have actually been fine if Matt Damon’s character had made the choice to bring her along early in the movie, but his hesitation to save the little girl at first makes his final choice seem a lot less heroic. It might have been the director’s intention to make it seem like that, but then he did not manage to carry it through properly.
Also, why focus so much on Delacourt’s plotting, if it is to let her die in a semi-heartfelt scene ? A lot of questions arise after watching the film: was Matt Damon’s exoskeleton really necessary? The physical abilities it is supposed to give him arenot so obvious on screen, as much as the visual possibilities offered by this technological improvement… Furthermore, why introduce Max’s childhood sweetheart in the beginning of the movie, before tossing their relationship away, whereas it could have worked as a powerful force within the script? The answer to this question might be an uneasy one: perhaps Neil Blomkamp is not too comfortable dealing with his characters’ emotions, and digging into complex feelings as well as putting them on screen. District 9 managed to avoid this problem by slowly shifting from a documentary approach to a more fictional setting, thus focusing the attention of the viewer on the evolving perception of the gritty science-fiction environment, and not so much on the main character’s personal journey (even if, in the end, his forced dive into the world of outcasts remains interesting).
Elysium is a satisfying film, but it sometimes feels like it could have been so much more, using a little bit less: to work as a stand-alone movie, it should have focused on Max’s journey, without taking into account Delacourt’s career’s plans and Max’s childhood sweetheart’s maternal worries: basically, kick ass Matt Damon versus evil Jodie Foster protecting the upper class’ privileges would have worked just fine. As it stands, Elysium almost feels like the first episode of a saga, except that the director had to resolve all the different aspects of the plot within one movie. It feels like all these different story leads needed more time to expand and to become really interesting.
Nevertheless, the visual universe crafted by Neil Blomkamp will certainly appeal to the majority of science fiction lovers, as well as a big portion of the action movie crowd. It is just too bad that an over-ambitious script and a few clumsy plot points transform what could have been a standout science-fiction outing, into a simple Saturday night entertaining film.