Review: Elysium (2013)

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Directed by – Neill Blomkamp
Written by – Neill Blomkamp
Starring – Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura & Maxwell Perry Cotton

Unlike most, I don’t find Elysium’s lack of subtlety remotely surprising. I’ve never been a fan of Blomkamp’s previous effort, District 9, for all of the same reasons that I don’t like Elysium – i.e. it’s slow, indulgent and much too heavy-handed – though at least the earlier film dabbled in the occasional bout of originality. Elysium, alas, never even threatens to do anything new, instead relying on derivative clichés that are as tired as they are boring. The issue isn’t so much that the film’s political subtext is transparent – and thus incredibly irritating – but that it’s explored through the medium of a “seen-it-all-before” dirge, complete with a dull romantic subplot, that it is just impossible to invest in on account of it being so dreadfully uninspiring.

Elysium is set in a generic dystopian future in which pollution and overpopulation have caused such immense damage to the planet’s infrastructure that the wealthiest citizens have fled to a space station called Elysium. As the people of Earth endure preventable illness, crippling poverty and vast social inequality, those on Elysium bask in the benefits of their immense wealth. Every now and then “immigrants” from Earth attempt to board Elysium, only to be turned away, arrested or executed in cold blood, while the robotic police force who patrol the planet mistreat, intimidate and bully those unfortunate enough to have been left behind. Combine this with the fact that unemployment is through the roof, that those who are in work have few rights and that the sole interest of those on Elysium is the consolidation of their own power and you have all the makings of a classic (read; overused) Earth-based dystopia. Yawn…

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Worse than this, however, is that the story through which this borderline election campaign is explored is a turgid slog that reads like it has been written by an overenthusiastic child. Every science-fiction cliché that you can think of gets a look in, and though the film deserves plaudits for its visuals it’s tough to shake the feeling that everything we’re seeing has just been loosely copied from much better sources. Like Oblivion, The Hunger Games and World War Z, Elysium is a film that “pays homage” (I believe this is now the agreed term for flagrant plagiarism) to a host of better films without ever attempting to develop a personality of its own.

This isn’t an issue that is unique to the plot either. The characters too are little more than pastiches of classic sci-fi creations which means it’s all but impossible to give a shit about any of them. As the film rumbled on I quickly realised that I just didn’t care one jot about anyone or anything, and that’s never a good sign. The “hero” of the piece – Max De Costa (Damon; Behind the Candelabra, The Departed) is your traditional broken man; he’s made mistakes, he’s insecure but he’s determined to change and prove his worth to the woman he loves (played by Alice Braga; City of God, I Am Legend), while the villains – Delacourt (Foster; The Silence of the Lambs, Carnage) and Agent Kruger (Copley; The A-Team, District 9) – are little more than a potpourri of the elements that make-up a whole host of better sci-fi bad guys. Delacourt is ruthless and power-hungry and Kruger is deadly and unhinged, yet both of them are so bereft of individuality that the peril they’re meant to represent never once feels urgent or threatening.

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It’s all a shame too because the central idea is relatively promising. Personal politics aside, I’ve always liked science fiction’s ability to explore issues in a unique setting, and the topics that Elysium attempts to explore – fear of immigration, the dangers of overpopulation, the role of the blue-collar worker and ever-expanding wealth inequality, to name just a few – are all very contemporary. Alas, just like with his exploration of social inequality in District 9, Blomkamp doesn’t trust his audience to reach conclusions of their own accord and, as such, he feels the need to ram each theme down our throats until we choke on his sense of righteous justice. The result of this is that the film ceases to have meaning; there’s only so much political hectoring I can take before I switch off altogether, a problem that is simply exacerbated when the politics is as simplistic as it is in Elysium. Oh look, immigrants are disgracefully treated! Oh look, decent healthcare is the preserve of the rich! Oh look, the bosses mistreat the workers! Sure, all of these things are true but that doesn’t mean you can base your entire film around them without acknowledging each issue’s vast complexities, something Elysium categorically fails to do.

Worst of all, however, the entire film is just really boring. In spite of its massive production values, Elysium is a mundane affair that lacks both purpose and energy. It is a shallow, frivolous film that deals in simple problems with simple solutions, and one in which even the internal logic of the World that has been haphazardly created cannot withstand any scrutiny. Action set-pieces come and go, interspersed with scenes of Jodie Foster hamming it up to an almost laughable degree and Matt Damon trying so hard to look like he gives a fuck, yet none of it leaves a mark. The film has not long finished and I’m already struggling to remember the finer details because none of them were remotely interesting. I wouldn’t mind if the film at least entertained on a “popcorn movie” level but it doesn’t even manage that.

To be blunt, Elysium is everything I expected it to be; it’s as subtle as a hammer to the throat, it’s as tedious as a political lecture from someone with no knowledge of the subject and it’s as self-indulgent as Blomkamp’s previous effort which, funnily enough, it spends most of its time plagiarising anyway. It’s just another addition to the list of films I don’t hate but just leave me feeling completely jaded, and I never wish to see it again.