Elysium (2013) – Review

Neill Blomkamp’s previous feature, District 9, was a masterful triumph in the science fiction genre.  Playing out as an allegorical examination of social inequality, tyrannical governments and freedom of speech, as well as an exciting, inspiring story of family and love, it was a wildly entertaining and, I think, rather important addition to the genre – not to mention a bloody fantastic debut for the director.  For his follow-up, Elysium, there was inevitably a certain amount of expectation for him to deliver on the same level, particularly so as it shares many of the themes and ideas of District 9.  It’s another grand sci-fi with big ideas and even more examinations of real world issues like the class system and poverty, and it even looks and feels very similar, with the two films sharing a colour pallet and some earthy cinematography; Los Angeles in Elysium is essentially the Prawn favela in District 9.  In fewer words, Elysium has all the makings to be a groundbreaking piece of cinema, it’s just a question of whether those pieces fit together.

The opening sequence gives us a little back story on the reasons behind the creation of Elysium (which is nicely told through unassuming superimposed titles rather than a vain voice-over from the main character, which so many other films would be tempted to do), and sets up something seemingly quite special.  The gorgeous images of kids running through a dusty Los Angeles at sunset, looking up longingly to Elysium, to sweeping shots of Earth from space and then Elysium itself, paired with the ethereal soundtrack, sort of just melts you into the film.  Just two minutes in and I was considering where it might fit in my top films of the year; it was that quick to win me over.  So why am I not about to start lapping it with praise?

Because too soon it descends into such generic sci-fi territory.  After that opening sequence nothing feels special or unique.  The beauty all but vanishes.  There’s nothing to set it apart from all the others, it sort of just dilutes into yet another passably entertaining but unmemorable blockbuster.  I was hoping for something a bit profound and inspiring, for something that lifted us up and asked a load of questions; because, let’s face it, sci-fi is at its best when it’s asking questions.  You should be leaving the cinema trying to figure things out.  For whatever problems the similar Oblivion had (and it did), at least it left us pondering a host of questions.  It wasn’t all clear-cut, we had to think a little and interpret it for ourselves.  I walked out of Elysium without a second thought in my head.

That’s not to say it isn’t generally entertaining.  Blomkamp knows what he’s doing, and he knows how to pace a film to hold the audience’s attention.  In general it’s well written, with a plot that draws you in sufficiently and characters we can invest in (although I have a feeling that we care about the under-written lead more because it’s Matt Damon rather than the because the character himself is particularly interesting).  We do care about what happens, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but if you’re looking for quality, adrenalin-inducing action sequences you’re probably in the wrong place.  Two words: shaky cam.  Goddamn shaky cam.  It’s everywhere; when two characters fight they keep ending up in different positions but we have no idea how they got there because the camera’s just all over the place, and sometimes it’s even just a tracking shot of someone walking and the camera’s flying up and down.  What do these people think the steadicam was invented for?  Throwing the camera around does not evoke the sense of urgency, it evokes the sense of a headache.

Sharlto Copley, re-teaming with Blomkamp after taking the lead in District 9, is freaking brilliant.  There’s no other way to describe it.  Playing Kruger, a gruff, cruel, psychotic sleeper agent at the will of Jodie Foster’s upper-class bitch Delacourt (who is surprisingly a bit rubbish, but we’ll get to that), he seems so out of place but so perfect for the role at the same time.  As he runs around spouting off some wonderfully malicious lines in his delicate South African tones, we can’t help but be reminded of the bad guys in Lethal Weapon 2 who at every turn tried so hard to sound menacing but couldn’t quite pull it off, like bunnies with claws.  We can’t help but love it.  Copley is actually a fantastic actor, and even though I found much of his work in Elysium funny when I don’t think it was supposed to be, I found it funny with the best possible intentions.  I wouldn’t want to see Kruger any other way.  On the subject of Jodie Foster, while being a fan of hers, I didn’t buy into this performance for a second.  For a start it looks like much of her dialogue has been re-recorded in post and badly dubbed over, but more pressingly there’s just a lack of authenticity.  I don’t know if it’s her putting on a strange accent or just simply failing to fully embrace the role, but something didn’t click.

While the weaker aspects of the film generally take president it doesn’t mean there aren’t good things to be found.  I enjoyed much of it – I really did – but it was passive enjoyment.  Nothing lingered, nothing surprised, and, as I’ve said, it doesn’t only not ask enough questions, but it doesn’t ask any questions at all.  Elysium is, overall, a decent but flawed film.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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