film review: Elysium (2013)

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film review: Elysium (2013)

Back in 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp appeared out of nowhere (seemingly) with his sci-fi thriller District 9. With a little help from Peter Jackson, Blomkamp’s vision put him on the map and garnered the film 4 Oscar nominations… but we’ve been waiting for 5 years for the follow up. Was District 9 just a flash in the pan?

Elysium is that follow up and… well… I’m still not sure if District 9 was a flash in the pan or not.

First off, I’m not going to go so far as to say that I didn’t like District 9. It was a good film, but a Best Picture nomination seemed excessive to me. Still, it was a solid effort and it definitely left me interested in seeing what he’d do next. Blomkamp has clear style, the effects in his films are impeccable and, thematically, he deals with issues which pique my interest.

Unfortunately, Elysium doesn’t quite hit the mark. It has the trappings of the kind of sci-fi I want to see – I talked about this in my Prometheus review, when I go to a sci-fi film I want to see “big ideas” – but those ideas are so boiled down and simplified that they lose all impact.

The concept, without being spoiler-y, is that the “have” of this world live in a giant space station orbiting Earth, which the “have-nots” toil away on a polluted, crowded, stinking land. As many have mentioned in reviews, it’s kind of like WALL·E, before they have to get WALL·E in.

So we’ve got our politics. And the pressing issue in the film is health care. So we’ve got our allegory. Unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps, Blomkamp leaves the allegory there. There’s no discussion around the situation that brought the people of Earth into this position (perhaps it’s meant to be obvious) and there’s no discussion that looks at how the people of Earth can get out of this position (perhaps there’s not meant to be). The solution, as far as I can tell – and this is a bit spoiler-y, is that we flick a switch.

Which makes me wonder about the the whole endeavour.

Is Blomkamp actually interested in the politics of the science fiction or is it just a scenario to hang an action film on? Certainly the level at which the film deals with entitlement, poverty and equality is… surface at best. I’m left with the impression that it’s something that weighs on Blomkamp, but not so much as to get in the way of making an entertaining film for the masses.

Perhaps I’m coming at Elysium the wrong way. Because I’m a huge sci-fi fan, I’ll always put the sci-fi first, and I’m often hard on films using the premise. Maybe I should be thinking of it as an actioner with a vaguely interesting setting.

In this respect, it’s (mostly) a great success. Sure, even when you leave out the social message, the plot is a little ludicrous. But that’s ok if you’re just watching an action flick. I can name 10 action films this year that were more ridiculous. Matt Damon does a reasonable job as the hero and Sharlto Copley… well he’s a little panto but he’s convincing.

Where Blomkamp triumphs here is with the effects.

As he did in District 9 he manages to bring a realism to the effects that you rarely see on the big screen. Especially in a action film. And the weapons he creates are fantastic. He has a way of imagining the evolution of tech that it’s eminiently believable. Though I would argue that 150 years in the future might be a little too far ahead for most of what he’s imagined here. But that’s neither here nor there in terms of enjoyment.

So, I wouldn’t call Elysium a resoundingly good sophomore effort. For all the talk of the social message, it’s incredibly simplistic, so far as to be a little insulting I think. But I think I need to give him the benefit of doubt…

… I don’t think Neill Blomkamp is out to save the world. I just wish he wouldn’t try to make his heroes do it.


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