Blu-ray Review: Elysium
Elysium ends my run of big summer movies I didn’t see until they were on Blu-ray, and for some reason all of them have been pretty lackluster. Only The Wolverine eked out a 7, but that’s not awesome praise. It’s just basic fun. I guess I didn’t miss much at the cinemas this summer after all.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s second film starts well with world-building on par with his District 9. He does a good job setting up everything we’ll need to know in the film as a portrait of the daily life on planet Earth in 2154. We see Max (Matt Damon) go to work, and deal with street kids and robots. Meanwhile on the space station Elysium, Delacourt (Jodie Foster) orders Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot down earthlings who are trying to essentially border cross onto Elysium, but in space.
The first act of Elysium is gripping and perceptive. I very much appreciate the warning about allowing automation to get out of hand. We’ve already given up telephone help lines and parking lots to automation and it’s horrible. No one knows how to use the systems and there’s no human being who’s just an expert and problem solver. Let’s not let law enforcement and parole administration go automated.
Elysium also has medical technology that can cure any illness, and that’s why earthlings are so desperate to sneak on board. Really if the rich people on Elysium had just given Earth a few of their medipods, the poor would leave them alone. Sure enough, Max gets radiation poisoning at work and only has five days to live. So he consults a black marketeer for help getting him onto Elysium for their medipods.
Unfortunately, when the plot really kicks in the movie suffers, mainly because it insists on being an action movie. It turns out that the basic plot of trying to get from earth to a space station is not that exciting. You just fly there. So Elysium creates a mission for Max so that there’s a reason he has to fight and shoot people. Spider (Wagner Moura) will get him to Elysium if he first agrees to Johnny Mnemonic some classified data from Elysium executive John Carlyle (William Fichtner).
This fills the movie with some chases and fights as Max goes after Carlyle, and then Kruger chases after Max. Max is fitted with a robo-skeleton so he can fight off the robots, but it’s ultimately just a bunch of brawls and chases with some visual effects stingers. Listen, I love action for action’s sake, but it has to be good action. Just having Max and Kruger fight their way up to Elysium isn’t anything.
It doesn’t bother me that the film’s politics is so on the nose because science fiction is a metaphor. In fact, I wish the film had been more overtly about the 99% and the 1% and not wasted so much time on this mediocre quest plot. District 9 had good action in its metaphorical sci-fi but that doesn’t mean the next one has to follow the same model. Maybe it would have been better as a more contemplative science fiction film.
The politics may not bother me but the children’s story that changes Max’s heart did. You really just hinged his character development on a child telling him a story? Come on. He also quotes Armageddon but I assume it’s unintentional. Neill Blomkamp probably didn’t bother to see Armageddon. Hell, Matt Damon probably didn’t either, and his best friend was in it.
Elysium is a stunning Blu-ray. The two worlds it presents are both home theater demo quality portrayals of unique environments. Earth is gritty, filled with debris and crusty machinery. Elysium is shiny and lush with faux nature. The CGI is a bit less seamless than in District 9. Any of the flying ships look like they’re pasted in, but it works in comparison to the sci-fi action we’re used to. It’s just apparent in high definition that it didn’t blend in.
The bonus features on Elysium are pretty trite, all talking heads talking about how great Blomkamp is. To be fair, the producers are more of the hypemeisters. I’m sure Damon, Copley and the behind the scenes artists were genuine and Blomkamp comes across as a humble artist. The extensive explorations of specific aspects of the film are solid as a portrait of filmmaking in a complex system, and none of them are overlong. It just gets to a point where you’re talking about your own movie and you must know how this sounds. The one deleted scene is fun if you were a fan of Kruger. It was wisely omitted from the film because it’s too cute.
I give Blomkamp credit for using his District 9 clout to try to do something meaningful in the big studio trappings. Artists should be allowed to try things and sometimes fail. If anything I gave Elysium a lot of good will, but there’s no denying I checked out of the action. Maybe the trick now is not to try to recapture lightning in a bottle with another high concept metaphor, but to just tell an organic story.