“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…

The Sunday Rant

Right, so I thought I could use some venting. The years of indentured servitude one has to go through in order to become a scientist, all the while biting his tongue and pickling his emotions, have taught me that keeping things in can be at least referred to as unhealthy. So, as one might probably realize by now, I tend to rant. A lot. I like to think it’s therapeutic, but other than that I don’t really know.

Last week ended up being really interesting. I spent God knows how long waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with the greatest (so far) stink-bomb of the year – “Iron Man 3”, because I really wanted to see how it is received globally. It would seem that here in Europe we’re mostly good guys and instances of brutally spoiling this film for our fellow movie-goers across the pond were rather scarce; if you don’t count Youtube – that place is just full of butt-holes, but who am I to talk… I sincerely hoped “Iron Man 3” would bomb, but quite expectedly people loved it. The critics write sonnets about how fantastic it was and the box office revenue reflects the popular (sigh!) vote; and that scares me.

I mean, I can understand that people don’t want to step on anyone’s toes with this one, because the great Shane Black wrote the script for this piece of crap, but let’s face it: for the good of everyone around there should be no sanctity when it comes to art or entertainment. If Spielberg makes a s**t film – people should know, but it turns out that RDJ only needs flutter his eyelashes for everybody to fall hopelessly in love with Iron Man… Shame… And to think someone who brought us “Lethal Weapon” or “The Last Boy Scout” could contribute to this…

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who saw that (here’s a video rant from Peter Rallis), but still countless masses made Marvel and Disney think they’ve done it right, because the only thing that matters in here is money. They’ll make a lot of it with this one and I’ll bet you money right here and now that the PG-13 spirit of “Iron Man 3” will make its way to the next “Thor”, “Captain America” or the next “Avengers”. Who knows, maybe they all will feature little boys, Christmas themes and meaningless non-violent substitute for action. It’s not OK. If you want to see a good comic book movie – go and watch “The Crow” (I re-watched it last Sunday to wash the Iron Man off my brain). Actually, do it before they remake it in PG-13, because they are remaking it. Since R-rated movies are frowned upon, the teenagers moan and groan and people lose money, I’m afraid the remake might not be exactly dark.

Now, I could even try and come to terms with the superhero genre replacing the good old-fashioned action cinema, but if this is the way we’re headed – count me out. Now I’m literally dreading the release of “Thor 2”, “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel”, because what if they suck as badly as “Iron Man 3” did? And I need my action films to feel normal. I was raised with them and can’t imagine the world without them…

And in that spirit, and following the raging disappointment Iron Man had caused, I caught up with two films that had slipped through my fingers: “Jack Reacher” and “End of Watch”. Now, I really appreciate the effort, because lately it is rather difficult to see something relatively original leave Hollywood. Well, maybe not exactly, because “Jack Reacher” was based on a novel if I remember correctly, but then again adapting literature is nowhere near as bad as plastering numbers on films or re-heating old noodles are. I desperately tried to like it and as a result I ended up even more frustrated with it than I originally was. Somebody needs to tell Tom Cruise it is time to go. I appreciate “Rain Man, “Jerry Maguire” or “Vanilla Sky”, but enough is enough. Tom just can’t create a believable character for crime/action film any more. It’s all Ethan Hunt over and over again and the attempted noir atmosphere just doesn’t sit very well with him. Between this, the last “Mission Impossible” and “Oblivion”, I think I’ve had enough of Tom Cruise in action films.

“End of Watch” on the other hand… Now that was something else. It was brutal, violent, gripping, maybe a bit heavy-handed with all the flag-waving and police self-apotheosis, but at least it stayed true to the values of action/crime cinema. Maybe the found-footage thing was a bit sketchy, but hey… Everybody vlogs now, so why not the Mexican gangs… So, just because I can swallow a fair bit of pathos before I get sick, I wasn’t bothered by the ‘serve-and-protect’ nonsense. The dialogues were nice, Jake Gyllenhaal was awesome, and most of all when bullets flew, people got hurt. So that’s a plus, because I hate when movies show battles or gunfights and everyone’s OK (which is exactly what I saw in “Iron Man 3”, and no – I do not intend to stop bashing it, it deserves it). Plus, the entirety of the film takes place in a car or in its direct surroundings, so clearly no-one needs to blow up oil rigs or destroy CG-made cities to keep the adrenaline up.

In fact, even “Crimson Tide” (that I happened to re-watch this week as well) proves that you can put your characters in a can and use no effects whatsoever in a film, for it to be gripping. Flag-wavy, but still gripping… But then, Denzel Washington sort of drives the movie on its own, which is yet another piece of evidence that we need character-driven action films and not this plastic colorful flashy bulls**t.

Speaking of plastic colorful flashy crap, Lovefilm sent me “Skyline” this week and I don’t really want to talk about it. I had it on my rental list for ages, because why the hell not and now I got it. What a pile of crap that was… It should be shown to people in film schools as a reminder that special effects are not enough and special effects guys rarely make good directors. Notable exceptions of the like of James Cameron can only prove the theory as a whole, because no theory is complete without exceptions. I shouldn’t even speak about “Skyline” any longer, because it might be mistaken for a review, but I’ll say only this: even though it tried to look like good modern sci-fi with all the bling what-not, but the appalling story and wooden acting can make any good film look mediocre… And a mediocre film look terrible… And a terrible film unwatchable… Therefore, just to make sure I still like Sci-fi I quickly re-watched “Sunshine” and “War of the Worlds” (with the latter additionally easing my Tom Cruise pain, but Spielberg can actually direct actors so that they look convincing, so I don’t know) and everyone was happy again.

Still, when was the last time I watched some genuinely good Sci-fi? As much as I’d like to say “Prometheus”, I couldn’t live with myself for doing that. All the nonsense that went on in that movie has most probably stretched the whole thing into a trilogy, which Ridley Scott will never finish (because he won’t have a clue, how to make it look kosher again) and hence “Prometheus” should be promptly disqualified. But anyway… Good Sci-fi… Maybe “Battle LA” could qualify even with the tonne of pathos it carried, but I think the last time I was literally blown away by a Sci-Fi film was the time I saw “District 9” – four years ago!

But there is a silver lining to that, because Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” hits theaters this summer, so at least I’ll have something to look forward to. And I can try to feel better about seeing “Star Trek” next weekend – hopefully it won’t suck.

Meanwhile, the Sunday rant slowly crept onto Monday territory and I think I can stop now. Maybe next week I’ll do something similar and I’ll see where it gets me.

Rant over.