‘Elysium’ is an impressive misstep

August 18, 2013

District 9 was a rare sci-fi import that took both critics and audiences by surprise with its blend of style, storytelling and satire (hell, the thing even scooped up an Oscar nomination).

Four years later, writer/director Neil Blomkamp returns to the genre with the much-anticipated “Elysium,” starring Matt Damon. And while it is a far cry from his breakout smash, it’s still captivating enough to close out the summer’s big-screen action quota.

From the very first frame, it’s evident that much care and talent went into creating “Elysium.” Blomkamp has created a familiar but wholly unique future that is stunning in its intricacies (the entire titular floating space station is a marvel of design). The biggest issue with the film is that Blomkamp the writer undercuts Blomkamp the director. Or, in cinematic terms, it suffers from a case of Shyamalan-itis.

The story is set in 2154, and Earth’s future is bleak: overpopulated, disease-riddled and left without rule, it resembles a planetary Detroit. On Elysium, however, all is bliss. Luxurious homes sit within manicured lawns and are stocked with medical pods that can zap away any and all afflictions.

Whenever Earth’s inhabitants attempt to blast off for the spinning utopia above, Secretary of Defense Delacourt (played by an utterly wasted Jodie Foster, in a rare horrible performance) sends in a rogue soldier, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) to blast them out of the sky.

Damon plays Max, a man who has always dreamed of visiting the intergalactic paradise, but whose convict past has kept him firmly grounded.

A workplace accident leaves Max pumped with radiation, shortening his life to about a week. His death sentence fuels his desire even more, and he enlists some rather sketchy friends to help him get there.

There’s also a tangential love interest and a greedy industrialist who factor into the story, but are mere side ramps to the actual journey (it’s also an excuse for Blomkamp to further hammer in obvious political commentary on immigration, healthcare, big business, etc.

The potshots are entirely too obvious and maudlin to have any real impact whatsoever, and they take up essential time that could be better spent adding depth to Max and further exploring the world of Elysium.

Max feels like the only real character in a film that features otherwise cartoonish, mustache-twirling villains and angelically good characters that are only missing a halo, harp and wings. Blomkamp then decides to conclude the proceedings with a largely routine two-person showdown instead of the world-clashing end that the story should go out on.

"Elysium" is an impressive misstep, a bold foul ball, but never a complete failure. It's a disappointment coming from the director of such a strong first film, but if director Neill Blomkamp would fire writer Neill Blomkamp and hire a stronger voice, his future in film would resemble that of the hovering world he creates here.

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