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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elysium

Neill Blomkamp is clearly a very talented director and he undoubtedly has at least one truly great film in him. Sadly, Elysium ain't it..


It's not just because of the sorry state of the rest of the South African film industry that South Africans - and the rest of the world - reacted so warmly to Neill Blomkamp's first feature film, District 9. It was, to be sure, a fairly flawed film but it wasn't only a well handled piece of science fiction and a smart allegory for apartheid - it also heralded a fresh new voice in genre filmmaking. Blomkamp and its star, Sharlto Copley, may be South African but bigger things clearly awaited them both.

Sadly, bigger doesn't always mean better and Blomkamp and Copley's second film together may have a significantly bigger budget than its predecessor and a number of A-list Hollywood actors but it has little of District 9's charm, smarts and ingenuity. Again, Blomkamp turns his attention to allegorical science fiction but this story of a world where the rich live away from the other 99.9999% on a luxurious habitat that orbits an overpopulated, over-polluted earth may work on a purely conceptual level but neither its storytelling or its lack of attention to detail put it anywhere near to being in the same class as its predecessor, not to mention the many good "smart" science fiction films that have come our way in recent years.    

This isn't to say that there's nothing to like about Elysium. It is a good looking (in a grimy, dusty kind of way) film with solidly shot action scenes and a show-stealing performance from Copley in full on Soaf-Afrikaan mode as a ruthless mercenary who is a million miles away from his District 9 character, the sweet-natured Wikus Van De Merwe. Matt Damon, on the other hand, plays far closer to type but even if his character is pretty badly defined, he is still typically charismatic as the film's chief protagonist, an ex-crook whose exposure to a lethal dose of radiation sets him on a path to change the world.

Sadly, while it may have certain charm as a futuristic actioner, as an allegorical science fiction film, it constantly fails to his its mark. It's interesting that in a general sense, the world that Blomkamp creates is quite nicely conceived but the actual implementation of the world is underdeveloped, often nonsensical and far too lacking in nuance for its own good.


Blomkamp's future is one where the divide between different economic classes has effectively reached the point where the very few rich people to live a life of pleasure, perfect health and prosperity, cordoned off from the rest of humanity in their own little country miles away from the surface of the earth and the working class schmoes whose lives are dedicated to working to improve the lives of their "rich overlords." It's a decent idea but its rich=bad, poor=good message is way too simplistic and too obvious for even a lefty like me.

There's also a central point in the film where only the rich have access to these miracle healing machines that can cure anything from a broken leg to cancer to restoring a face blown clear off by a hand grenade but the film never explains how that situation came about, especially when the rich could theoretically make even more money by charging the proles for this service. I know, I know, it's all about universal medical care but, again, however sympathetic I am to the real-life idea being espoused, in the context of the film, it just reads as shoddy storytelling.

And speaking of shoddy storytelling, the film's plot holes and unconvincing world building are only the beginning. The plot arc is pretty predictable and some of the dialogue is pretty damn shoddy but it's the characterisation that is especially awful. Most of the characters in the film have no personality whatsoever, let alone depth - none more so than Jodie Foster's power-hungry, unearthly-accented evil politician. This character is presumably supposed to be the big bad of the film (or is she?) but between her mustache-twirling villainy, stupid accent and Foster's phoned in performance, she is mostly just irritating.

As for Damon's hero, he is theoretically the most complex character here but his character arc from lowly ex-con to Jesus-like saviour makes little sense, especially as his final transformation takes a back seat to the boring fisticuffs that make up the alleged climax of the film. There's also a whole subplot involving the return of his childhood friend but again, very little thought seemed to have gone into their relationship or her one-note character.      

Elysium, basically, is a bit of a well-meaning dud and if you want to see a science fiction film that tackles similar themes but does so with more wit, intelligence, nuance and flat-out entertainment value, I highly recommend checking out Joss Whedon's quite excellent Serenity (and its originating TV show, Firefly, while you're at it) to see exactly how this sort of thing should be done. I have little doubt that Blomkamp will finally make a film that lives up to the promise of the first half of District 9 but, though Elysium is hardly offensively bad, it certainly isn't the science fiction masterpiece that we were waiting for.


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