What an utter disappointment.
Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to the acclaimed District 9 has all the socio-political depth of a Take This Job and Shove It / Escape from L.A. mash-up with enough inept shaky-cam action sequences to make even the most forgiving apologist scramble for the Dramamine.
But it's not a total loss. At least not if you're a design-wonk, because this is a beautifully designed film. Blomkamp has presented us with an utterly realistic world that is unfortunately broken down into a Sophomore-Year Young Socialist concept of class inequality. The poor people are extremely poor and the slum life that Blomkamp captured so well in District 9 is reproduced here in a more wide-open way (thanks to shooting in a dump on the outskirts of Mexico City) with imagery reminiscent of last year's Dredd – just without the charm.
And the rich people's orbital paradise, the titular Elysium, is glorious space-porn. It's the sort of visual effect that serves as a nice contrast to the filth-covered realism of Earth, but lacks any sense of practical functionality. It's a world where apparently robots do everything except manufacture other robots. All so that rich people can lounge around having cocktail parties and cultivating annoying accent tics and quirks. The rich are all either politicians, corporate fat-cats, or idle.
Down on earth, the poor are all either factory workers, health care employees, or thieves and criminals from the looks of things. Except for those poor people who are simply poor and in need of medical attention. Because that's what this film all boils down to: The Poor People need Health Care and the Rich People are Monopolizing Access.
Matt Damon and Alice Braga do what they can to humanize the 1-note cartoon characters they are playing, while Jodie Foster seethes and hisses in a bizarre accent so silly I'm surprised she didn't have a mustache she could twirl. Sharlto Copley is an evil bastard with absolutely no redeeming value, lifted directly from the Road Warrior, and brings the only real energy to the film.
With such ridiculous cardboard characters lacking pretty much all emotional and psychological depth, the film wasn't necessarily doomed. There are numerous examples of simplified morality tales of class conflict in the genre that work with effortless charm. Escape from New York leaps immediately to mind. The recent Lockout is another. But what both of those films had that Elysium lacks is a sense of fun and adventure. Elysium is so full of self-importance that even Matt Damon's attempts to provide some sort of heart are undermined by the melodramatic inclusion of the obligatory sick child that needs protecting and the needless "You were put here for a reason" speech by the nuns who took care of him as (wait for it) an orphan.
The action sequences are only partially effective – at least so long as Blomkamp sticks to the long shots recalling Vietnam helicopter gunmen machine gunning people on the ground. When the action moves to close-up, hand-to-hand combat, the use of handheld cameras makes it impossible to tell what is going on.
As for the mechanics of the actual plot, the less said the better. Briefly, it seems that the President of Elysium is determined by whoever has their name listed in the Elysium computer system as President. There's no indication of political process involved and whoever is tagged as President in the computer controls all the robots and thus, Elysium. And apparently there is no legal structure in place to counter the clumsy hacking of the system and rebooting (in less time than my home computer) of the ENTIRE ELYSIUM SPACE STATION COMPUTER SYSTEMS.
Once the system is hacked, the new rulers apparently just need to keep an armed guard on duty at all times to prevent anyone else from hacking and rebooting the system. Honestly, it's all so stupid I'm amazed that there was a writer credit claimed by anyone, much less the director. Was his wife and co-writer of District 9, Terri Tatchell, unavailable to look over this mess?
It's like a Blomkamp-wannabe made this film after watching District 9 and completely missed everything that made that film work: The over-the-top gore humor, the sympathetic lead whose beliefs change (along with the other changes) as the story develops, and an ending that while hopeful, retains a sense of drama and tragedy. Elysium is a dumbed-down attempt at social relevancy with mishandled action sequences and clichés for characters, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of politics, psychology, medicine, and economics. If it weren't for the beautiful design work of Philip Ivey, there would be nothing worth noting about this latest addition to a heart-breakingly bleak summer of Science Fiction Cinema (it should be noted, however, that it is still better than the nostalgia clusterfuck that was Star Trek into Darkness and the mass-murder porn of Man of Steel).
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available for at Amazon US and UK along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation, also at Amazon US and UK. He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One and Two. Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.