Elysium was always likely to be problematic. The difficulty in making a critically acclaimed and commercially successful film is that, once the dust has settled and the accolades have faded to mere echoes, you’re expected to do it all over again. Except this time, right from the start, you’re contending with the weight of expectation.
This is the situation Neill Blomkamp found himself in after his debut film District 9 – filmed for a mere $30 million – racked up box office receipts of nearly $211 million, as well as receiving four Academy nominations. Under a degree of pressure to follow up his debut with another success, Blomkamp took the sensible route and stuck to what he knows best – that being science fiction.
So, enter Elysium.
The year is 2145. Earth is an overcrowded, polluted wasteland where millions live in poverty. The rich and privileged by contrast live in luxury on Elysium – a huge ringworld in Earth’s orbit – where they are free to pursue their decadent lifestyles completely free of any illness, thanks to their med-pods that are capable of curing any disease and healing any injury.
Any space shuttles approaching Elysium airspace without permission are mercilessly shot down at the behest of Jessica Delacourt, Elysium’s frosty Secretary of Defence. This doesn’t stop dozens of desperate people paying for their passage on the illegal shuttles that make regular attempts to crash-land on the verdant lawns of Elysium’s residents, in a bid to use their med-pods and/or disappear into Elysium society.
When Max Da Costa – a former car thief on parole, living in the ruins of Los Angeles – finds himself in possession of data that can completely undermine the existing societal structure of Elysium, he has a chance to change the fate of millions – but only five days to do it. And to do so, he must travel to Elysium itself – the once place it’s impossible for him to reach.
Visually, Elysium bears more than a passing similarity to its predecessor. The desolate urban landscape of Los Angeles possesses a convincing, frayed aesthetic reminiscent of District 9’s alien internment camp – and there’s the same tangible sense of hopelessness. This gritty realism is fuelled by some excellent costume design, from the battered shuttles to the exo-suit that Max reluctantly wears. Elysium itself provides a perfect contrast, all verdant lawns and sparking swimming pools surrounding perfect white homes.
Not that there’s much time to admire the art direction or cinematography, as Elysium is nothing if not pacy, and the streamlined plot allows the focus to remain very much on action – and once it gets going it rarely relents. Neill Blomkamp proves he’s not forgotten how to direct a gripping action sequence and Matt Damon is as reliable as ever when he’s waving a gun around.
Which is all well and good, save for the fact that the relentless pace of the film means that there’s precious time to develop the characters in detail or develop meaningful relationships between them.
And this is the problem with Elysium – it possesses all of District 9’s style, but precious little of its substance.
Max’s backstory is fleshed out in a few throwaway flashbacks, which isn’t enough to really make us feel that we know him particularly well. These flashbacks also serve to establish the relationship between Max and Frey, which is something that is never sufficiently developed and results in a lack of chemistry between the two characters which in turn leeches the film of any real emotional impact.
Delacourt is nothing more than an icy Queen Bitch, whose card is marked the second she appears on screen.The rest of the characters are little more than one-dimensional cutouts, save for Sharlto Copley who at least manages to exude some genuine menace as the unhinged agent Kruger (even if there’s the faintest touch of pantomime villain about his performance). The end result is a lot of deaths that it’s difficult to really care either way about.
The simple plot, while lending itself well to action, doesn’t exactly foster much depth to the proceedings. We get one or two brief hints of the poisonous politics that exist at the heart of Elysium, something that could have been potentially very interesting if it was explored in more detail.
There’s a core of social commentary running through the whole film – just as there was with District 9 – that touches on issues such as immigration and the entitlement to, and provision of, medical care, but these are little more than ripples on the surface of what are far more complex issues, and once again the frenetic pace and focus on action doesn’t allow time for these ideas to be explored.
Elysium is an enjoyable action film with SF trappings and a veneer of social commentary. But it could have been so much more, and that’s the lasting impression that it leaves you with.