Monday, August 19, 2013
ELYSIUM Is Good, But Not In District 9's League
- Neill Blomkamp's first feature film was the monumental District 9 - and, man, that's a tough first act to follow. District 9 was like a sci-fi thunderbolt a few years back - a movie that seemed to come out of nowhere, leapfrogging over the more-hyped, bigger-budgeted summer movie competition and becoming not just *the* movie of that summer, but an Oscar-nominated instant classic. Hate if you will, but District 9 mixed social satire science fiction with adrenaline-pumping, balls-to-the-wall action like few other genre films ever have. Suffice it to say, as soon as the film was over, I was primed and ready for whatever it was that Blomkamp had up his sleeve for his next trick.
Now, after a seemingly interminable wait, we finally have the director's sophomore effort, ELYSIUM. And yes, going in, expectations were high. Blomkamp's debut was so stellar and meteoric that you had to question what he could possibly do to top it. And you had to wonder if this movie would cement him as the next great blockbuster director, or if it would relegate him to one-hit-wonder status.
The semi-frustrating fact is that, post-Elysium, it's still hard to say. Elysium has moments that call to mind the visual electricity and high-concept shock-and-awe of District 9. But it also is not in the same league, overall, as that film. I remain confident that Blomkamp has it in him to make many more great films. But I also think that, to do so, he'll have to learn from the mistakes of what has to be considered a bit of a sophomore slump.
It's funny, because District 9 managed to amaze by starting small and then pulling back the lens to reveal a much larger scope and scale than was originally anticipated. Elysium, on the other hand, starts big, but becomes increasingly insular as it goes. But I will say: the opening scenes of the film paint a breathtaking picture of a future-world dystopia. In a well-done bit of world-building, we're introduced to an earth that is now an ugly, rubble-filled wasteland in which money, resources, and hope are scarce. All of the planet's well-off citizens have fled to Elysium, a utopian space station that hovers above earth's orbit. Those stuck on earth work in poor conditions in giant factories, manufacturing goods and tech used by the Elysians, but hoarded and kept away from earth. The factory that our main character, Max, works in produces robots that are used as police on earth, and as servants and guards on Elysium. Meanwhile, the most precious piece of tech on Elysium are the medical bays that, almost magically, can heal nearly all wounds and sickness. Frequently, bands of desperate, ailing earth denizens try to smuggle themselves to Elysium in order to make a mad border dash for the healing bays. Most find themselves greeted with deadly force by an unsympathetic government.
And so, Elysium positions itself as one hell of a 1% vs. 99% sci-fi parable. I was on the edge of my seat for the movie's opening scenes, totally caught up in this world - both the striking dystopian/utopian visuals, and the possibilities for social commentary that such a world allowed for. I'll talk more about the visuals for a second, and just say that Blomkamp is clearly one of the best there is at sci-fi world-building from a visual standpoint. The budget upgrade from District 9 allows him to give us the big, wide shots that show top-down views of these two contrasting places: the ruined buildings, slums, and poverty of earth, and the sleek, green, ultra-modern eden that is Elysium. Blomkamp has a way of casually shooting sci-fi: i.e. giving these worlds a lived-in quality, showing us the far-out as mundane, that is unique. Like the way that police robots patrol earth and deal with citizen misconduct. There's a thrilling, Star Wars-esque quality to the way that Blomkamp shoots stuff like this.
But where Blomkamp falters in ELYSIUM is, shockingly, the big action scenes. Pick any still frame of the big set pieces, and they'll probably look awesome. But somehow, for his second film, Blomkampf has largely abandoned the cleaner, more old-school action style of District 9, in favor of a whole lot of shaky cam and Michael Bay-style rapid-fire cuts. It's funny, because District 9 felt like such an antithesis to movies like Transformers when it came out. But here, Blomkamp undermines his own action scenes by cutting them all to hell. It's a shame, because if nothing else, the guy has a sense for putting stuff into his movies that's just inherently cool. In District 9, we got the mech. In Elysium, it's the laser-shield that Sharlto Copley's character wields. And it's the aforementioned police robots going robo-crazy and kicking ass. There are action sequences in Elysium that are pretty damn badass on a conceptual level. But for some reason, a lot of them are shot close-in and rapid-fire - taking away some of the awe and wonder and fun.
The action scenes aren't the only thing that feel more bland and generic as opposed to District 9. Even more importantly, the characters of the film just don't pop, for the most part, like they should. Chiefly, Matt Damon's Max is pretty vanilla. Max is a worker on earth who was once a low-level criminal, but who is now trying to go straight by making an honest living in a robot factory. However, when Max's pushy boss forces him to make a potentially dangerous repair to fix a system malfunction, Max gets trapped in a hazardous area and is doused with deadly radiation. Max finds out that he's now only got five days to live. Desperate and angry, he tracks down his old criminal buddies, and convinces them to help him get to Elysium. His hope is to get to a healing chamber and cure his condition. The gang agrees to help, if Max agrees to help them rob a top-level Elysium fat cat. They outfit Max with a souped-up exoskeleton armor suit, and away they go.
Here's the thing: Max's arc is supposed to be that he's initially just trying to live and survive, but, eventually, he takes on a deeper sense of purpose and becomes a sort of messianic figure. Okay, good in theory - but it's touched on in only the most fleeting ways in the film. What should have been an epic character arc ends up feeling limp and by-the-numbers. For most of the film, Max just feels like Matt Damon playing an everyman, and there's never any real doubt as to where this is all heading. Everything about Max feels half-baked and not-that-interesting. The flashbacks to his childhood raised by nuns? Just sort of there. His relationship with Frey, a childhood friend and potential love interest? No real spark. I really had no feeling one way or the other as to whether or not they should end up together. Max in this movie is, frankly, just sort of a boring dude. The script doesn't particularly serve the character well or make him all that interesting, and Damon also doesn't really provide enough gravitas or emotion to make him all that epic or awesome (for some reason, I kept thinking of a 70's version of this film starring Charlton Heston, and how badass that might have been).
Overall, there is a sense of Elysium being a movie that isn't fully sketched in. Max as a character feels loosely-drawn and sort of vague. And the same is true for the whole movie. That feeling starts with the characters. Jodie Foster's Delacourt - Elysium's unfeeling Secretary of Defense - is okay as a sinister corporate villain type, but we never *really* get into the psychology of why she is the way she is. Elysium as a whole, for that matter. How did it evolve to be the way it is? How did this segregation start? Why is tech like the healing chambers kept from those on earth? And how did Elysium's uncaring, totalitarian-esque government come to be? I'm not saying I need all the details. But I want to feel like all of those details have been fully thought through. I wanted to feel like this world fully makes sense, even if we aren't explicitly told all the details.
And that's where the holes in ELYSIUM begin to show. Because on some level, this feels like a movie with a great premise, but like a movie in which the premise ultimately gives way to Blomkamp's desire for cool action scenes and videogame-esque pyrotechnics. I think about Sharlto Copley's role as Kruger, a wild-man hired gun who does Delacourt's bidding on earth. Copley is incredibly fun here. He goes for broke, and turns in a totally off-the-rails, unhinged performance. It's a great, memorably villainous turn. The problem is that Kruger is cool and badass in and of himself, but it really makes no sense that he gets so much screentime given the story that the movie sets out to tell. It's like if Bobba Fett ended up becoming the big bad of Star Wars just by virtue of his coolness. Someone needed to remind Blomkamp that like Star Wars, Elysium is a story about rebels vs. the evil empire. And as such, the movie should build to a confrontation with said empire. But Blomkamp seems to fall in love with Kruger and his kewl laser-shield, at the expense of his own story. It also feels like there was a missed opportunity with William Fichtner's awesomely sinister corporate overlord character, John Carlyle. Carlyle feels like the natural villain of the film, and Fichtner is great in the part, as always. But Carlyle is taken off the board pretty early, even though he's the one who seems to represent all that is wrong with Elysium and who, other than Delacourt, is most interested in protecting its exclusive way of life. By the time the movie reaches its climax, it's more about a bunch of guys fighting *just because*, and not much more. That's the inherent problem with Elysium as it goes on - for a movie that is purportedly *about* stuff, many scenes feel sort of devoid of thematic resonance or relevance.
To the movie's credit and to its detriment, it seriously seems to emulate the structure of a videogame. The plot progression feels less about organic character arcs and well-timed twists, and more about Max simply progressing from one "level" to the next. What this means is that there's an inevitability to the plot and how it unfolds that zaps the movie of a lot of tension. The ending feels like a foregone conclusion long before it happens. Rather than toy with our expectations, the movie pretty much just follows them from Point A to Point B. This means that the film - though action-packed - feels oddly slow at times.
And yet, there are still those moments where we are reminded that Blomkamp knows how to crank things up a notch and just bring the awesome. His knack for character and creature design is pretty amazing. The robots in this movie look phenomenal. The vehicles and landscapes as well. And what I like about Blomkamp is that he never seems to tone things down for the mass audience. In Elysium, the scene where Damon gets the exoskeleton grafted to him is just absolutely, awesomely brutal. Later on, a scene in which a mutilated Kruger attempts to use a healing bay to stay alive - it's just classic, old-school gore (the f/x used even look practical - right out of an old John Carpenter flick). Speaking of which, the movie uses a lot of practical sets and f/x, and it really shows. It helps add to that feeling of lived-in grittiness.
Other than Fichtner's Carlyle, my favorite character in the film was Wagner Moura's Spider - the leader of the band of criminals/rebels who give support to Max. Moura cranks things up to eleven, and is just totally over-the-top in the role. But it's a kind of over-the-top that fits, because unlike Damon, Moura conveys the rage and frustration of the earth people, and that rage gives the movie a spark that Max alone does not. On the flip side of things, Diego Luna is pretty meh as Julio, Spider's associate and Max's best friend. Same goes for Alice Braga as Frey. A weak character that Braga is unable to elevate.
ELYSIUM maintains some of District 9's edginess. The R-rating allows for a level of grittiness that you don't always associate with big-budget genre fare. At the same time, there is that sort of sense that mo' money created mo' problems for Blomkamp and team. District 9 was so scrappy and rock n' roll ... some of that is still evident in Elysium, but there's also a sense that there was pressure on Blomkamp to go back to the same well he'd had success with once, even if he'd already said what he needed to say about segregation and discrimination with his first film. Maybe he needs to work with some other writers. Maybe he just needs to tackle a wholly different genre or theme. But whatever the case may be, you can't help but feel like Elysium is the warmed-over leftovers to District 9's main course. It's sleeker and filled with bigger stars, but the heart and soul and wow-factor just isn't there. Look, Blomkamp can do kick-ass sci-fi in his sleep, and I am still firmly onboard the Blomkamp bandwagon. But Elysium is a bump in the road on the path to legendary status. Let's see what the guy can do with his next film.
My Grade: B