“Elysium” – a stunningly gorgeous case of squandered potential

However I’d like to look at it, this year hasn’t been particularly rich in good Sci-Fi so far. Sure, I should probably mention “Man of Steel” as a particularly good example, though it is still technically a reboot and a comic book adaptation, and maybe “Star Trek into Darkness” (again, a sequel to a reboot of an established franchise). Nevertheless, in the field of original Sci-Fi, apart from “Pacific Rim” that I (and nobody else) loved, it’s been real slim pickens out there. Therefore, I really hoped I could wrap up this underwhelming summer in style and “Elysium” seemed to be perfect for just that occasion.

Quite honestly, I have been anticipating Neill Blomkamp’s newest creation for months now. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one around here who was floored by the perfectionist, beautiful and painfully gritty “District 9” a few years back, and among a multitude of thoughts streaming through my brain after seeing it I remember hoping I could have another serving of this kind of delicious Sci-Fi.

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In terms of story, “Elysium” does not come across as particularly original, but stays in tune with Blomkamp’s earlier film by touching on a sensitive problem we are facing at the moment. In it, we are presented with a dystopian vision of the world that is overpopulated, poor, filthy, and dangerous, where the vast majority of people struggle to see another day, all the while the richest and the most powerful (in other words, the mythical ‘1%’) have abandoned the planet altogether to dwell on a space station called “Elysium” orbiting the Earth. Simply put, Elysium is paradise incarnate, where everyone leads happy lives oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the regular folk on Earth. Not only that, but most importantly, every citizen of Elysium has access to the cutting edge medical technology that can heal pretty much anything, thus rendering them nearly immortal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the otherworldly technology and the standard of living makes living on Elysium a dream of everybody down on Earth. Therefore, attempts at breaching its borders with stolen spaceships seem to be quite frequent, but they are almost invariably unsuccessful with most of the illegal immigrants being caught, deported and/or killed by ruthless Homeland Security led by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) – nearly the most powerful person on Elysium.

Back on Earth, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works in a droid factory and is doing a particularly bad job at staying out of trouble. One morning he manages to get into an argument with a police droid and walks away with a broken arm and extended parole only to roll up at work to suffer a terrible accident that leaves him with only a couple of days to live. Knowing perfectly well that the technology on Elysium could heal the radiation poisoning that is slowly killing him, Max seeks help of a local gangster Julio (Diego Luna). In exchange for the ticket to Elysium (which doesn’t necessarily mean he would get there), Max agrees to kidnap one of the heavily guarded ‘haves’ (William Fichtner), tap into his brain and extract information that might be worth billions on the black market. What he doesn’t know is that the person he’s about to rob is in possession of data that in the right set of hands could change the course of history. All that leads to Max being put in Delacourt’s crosshairs, who sends one of her most vile and dangerous sleeper agents Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to put him out of his misery.

Even with all its shortcomings, to which I’ll get in a minute, “Elysium” did earn its place on my shelf alongside my favorite kind of Sci-Fi. Even though the story is not the strongest card in its hand, this film’s lively world and gritty atmosphere made me squeal with enjoyment all throughout the screening. I can honestly say that Blomkamp has a fantastic grasp on how to build dynamic worlds and seamlessly incorporate the Sci-Fi elements into them. In “Elysium” we don’t have an alien race that needs to be worked into the universe, but instead we’ve got tons of really cool technology that nobody wastes time explaining (a cardinal sin committed by “Oblivion”). I personally love the immersive feel Blomkamp has provided (yet again), because it was completely up to me to discover all the fine details and little geeky things. I would be really disappointed if at every turn someone had to say a line or two to help me understand what’s going on. Blomkamp definitely understands how important it is to keep the viewer ‘in the zone’ at all times and how such moments would most definitely break the immersion. Sure, at times it is necessary to provide some details about what’s going to happen, but even at that, Blomkamp doesn’t really slow the pace down for us to catch up.

I think it’s not going to be a stretch if I say that “Elysium” is a near perfect example of how the Sci-Fi components should be incorporated into a film to create and engaging experience for the genre aficionados, because that’s to whom Neil Blomkamp has definitely addressed all his efforts. While I believe everybody can find “Elysium” very entertaining (it is, after all, a high quality big budget Sci-Fi film with high-profile cast and fantastic special effects), it’s the bunch of young adults (and adults) raised on video games, who will find this film to be a rollercoaster of genre-winking that will bring a smile to their faces. Seriously, how could I stay indifferent to the idea of the main character casually using a rail-gun that is not even mentioned in the story? And that’s not the end: from the combat exoskeletons, police droids, through brain chips ran on Norton Commander, all the way to personal force fields, “Elysium” is simply full of meticulously designed details that immensely help to lose oneself in this wonderfully crafted world of disparity and violence.

 

Having said all that, “Elysium” while perfect in its visuals, attention to detail and geeky references, it falls short in quite a few other departments. The first and the most important major concern I have with this film has to do with its story. As someone who values films most often for their storytelling, I regret to say that “Elysium” could have been written a bit better. It’s not that I dislike Blomkamp’s writing altogether, because I did enjoy the way the story was presented and paced, but I would like to have seen more emphasis laid on the characters, even at the cost of longer running time or the action sequences. I understand completely that a Sci-Fi film has to juggle way too many balls in order to get everything right, but all things considered, even a great spectacle can be destroyed by terrible writing.

As much as I enjoyed the story, even with its simplicity and all too conveniently placed characters and plot points, I think in general too much focus is placed in it on the wider universe and establishing the atmosphere. At some point the world starts to live on its own and doesn’t require additional hand-holding, so that the emphasis could be shifted towards something else. Sadly, the deeper we go into the story, the more “Elysium” fails to develop. For instance, all throughout the film we can learn so much about life on Earth and see it as a well-designed thriving world, all the while Elysium itself seems to be completely disregarded. As a result, I couldn’t help but think this so-called paradise was empty and devoid of any character. Empty houses, empty rooms… Plus, almost all of the sparse characters felt severely underwritten. In all honesty, it might have been done by design in order to elevate the sense of privilege and class disparity if Elysium was actually almost uninhabited, but something tells me it was not the case. Taking into account how nearly all characters (including Jodie Foster) looked undeveloped and glossed over, I can only assume that Blomkamp spent way too much time obsessing over the grit and dust on the Earth side of things and forgot to breathe life into the main players on stage.

Speaking of Jodie Foster, I can’t really stay silent about her performance, which was disappointing at best. That woman doesn’t really fit very well as a cold-hearted ‘catch-you-next-Tuesday’, which as a result made her character look blown out of proportion and comical, especially with that fake accent that she clearly could not pull off. Maybe if we got some more background on her, and/or more on-screen time, things could be different, but as a villain Jodie Foster was definitely out of her depth.

Not to worry, though. On the other hand, wherever Jodie Foster’s character fell short of expectations, Sharlto Copley’s Kruger made up for it in style. On some level, I don’t think if I’d be too far off by saying that Jodie Foster was only posed as the main baddie of the film, whereas it was Copley who was the true villain all along. Normally, I wouldn’t mind that kind of misdirection because of its eventual inconsequentiality. What I was disappointed with in the end was the fact that Kruger’s character whilst being potentially so rich, vibrant and layered, ended up receiving even worse treatment in the writing department than Jodie Foster’s Delacourt.

I was seriously dying to learn the importance of Kruger’s implants, the reason his weapon of choice was a katana, and most importantly, what his motives were. In return, I got exactly nothing in that regard. I can only consider it a wasted opportunity, because Kruger quickly becomes as one-dimensional as it gets. Sure, he gets to be a major boss in the story and all his abilities and what-not are there, but he could have been so much more. Thanks to lack of attention, Copley’s character goes all too quickly from disturbingly terrifying to a baddie with a sword, and it weren’t for that, “Elysium” in my opinion would have had the chance to become something more than a just another beautifully wrapped Sci-Fi story.

As much as I’d like to be able to say otherwise, “Elysium” as a whole is a wasted potential to redefine the genre. It wouldn’t really need much more than to balance the beautiful visuals and perfectly crafted world with a compelling story inhabited by relatable and vivid characters. In terms of atmosphere and the overall Sci-Fi experience, I can only congratulate Blomkamp, because “Elysium” is a very fun ride. Really, if at any point in time somebody out there decides to adapt the “Fallout” universe for the big screen, I believe that Blomkamp would be a fine man for the job. He clearly gets the post-apocalyptic vibe and like no-one else has the ability to smear the Sci-Fi onto real life to eliminate its artificial smell. However, I cannot accept a poorly written story just because the film looks beautiful. I really need my characters to jump off the page (or at least have more than one dimension) and no amount of grit and geeky tech can make up for that. As a result, what could have been ground breaking, ended up just very good. I know it looks as if I didn’t like “Elysium” – far from it – but I really expected Neill Blomkamp to dazzle me, which he did only partially…

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3 thoughts on ““Elysium” – a stunningly gorgeous case of squandered potential

  1. I agree about Jodie. Love her as an actress. Clarice Starling will always be one of my favorite film characters of all time. But she stunk as a villain. She’s too much bunny-rabbit and not enough snake. It totally didn’t work for me.

    Blomkamp has mastered the visual element of modern film. This much is true. He just needs the badass story to back it up. *Sigh* Maybe some day.

    Like

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