There is no way to set aside the expectations that were raised by Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9. When a filmmaker debuts with a sci-fi picture that so uniquely takes on the concept of apartheid—while also delivering an entertaining movie-going experience—his follow-up picture is going to be saddled with unfair expectations.
Even without those expectations I don’t think Elysium—his second feature—works.
Set in the year 2154, we are treated to an unrecognizable LA (even for those of us who haven’t been there, and have only seen it in the movies) before we are shown the man-made satellite dwelling space known as Elysium.
This orbiting space station is where all the rich people live. On Elysium medical aid means that people with the proper credentials can be cured of all illnesses, thereby being granted a much longer life than humankind is currently used to. Meanwhile poor people are left behind on Earth where disease, pestilence, and scarce resources eventually claim their lives. And the security forces on Elysium work very hard to ensure that outsiders are kept outside, employing extreme force whenever necessary.
The themes of environmental decay and the real threats inherent in overpopulation are clearly informing the thoughts and creative decisions of a lot of people because there are movies, books, and artworks being produced around these ideas. And it is all very commendable.
But Elysium crumbles under the weight of its premise.
We experience this frightening world of squalor through the eyes of Max (Matt Damon), a slum dweller who works at a factory, bad-mouths police robots, has dreams of making it to Elysium one day, and has a strange—not quite romantic—relationship with Frey (Alice Braga) another slum dweller who has a sick little daughter.
Throw in Jodie Foster as a creepy Elysium politician, and Sharlto Copley as a wild-eyed scary dude who is living undercover on Earth and doing Elysium’s dirty work, and we’ve got a movie. Or not.
Mr. Copley’s performance is one of ferocious insanity and he delivers a memorable bad guy who could have used a few more scenes to truly enter our consciousness as an indestructible Boogeyman from the future. Mr. Damon is as likeable as always, but his character is ill-developed. So it all adds up to a movie whose soundtrack expects you to feel powerful emotions, without providing the narrative to justify the actual feeling of those emotions.
Final Analysis: Elysium is a good example of how a movie gets away from the filmmakers because—on the surface—it has many of the same elements as District 9. It just lays its message on too thick. And while the action sequences are spectacularly staged, the only question raised by an experience like this is: why would I want to go watch a movie that just bums me out?
My Advice: If you were planning on watching this movie, watch it on the big screen. Some of those action sequences are designed to be experienced on the largest canvas available. Just don’t go in expecting a repeat of District 9 magic.