Amazing how much better District 9 suddenly seems.
Elysium takes place in the year 2154. Earth is one big, overpopulated shit hole where everyone’s always sick and poverty’s the norm. Up in space is a man-made paradise where the privileged live life without a care in the world. I just ain’t fair, folks, but that’s the way it is. Our story follows that of an ex-con-turned-working man who has to make his way up to paradise before he kicks the bucket in just five short days. Why? Well that’s because A) he’s jacked up on radiation, and B) paradise is chock full of these space-age tanning booths that can instantly cure you of any disease. Unfortunately for our hero, getting up to paradise is no easy feat. So with the help of a local kingpin, a plan is concocted, one that involves our guy getting that handy-dandy exoskeleton grafted onto him. As they put their plan into action, the jerks up in paradise start pulling out all the stops to take our guy down. But this is no ordinary slumdog they’re dealing with. This is Matt Damon: Savior of Humanity.
Homey needs to put that on his business card.
Before we get into this, I’ve got a confession to make (or rather grievance to air): I wasn’t crazy about District 9. Saw it four years ago with every intent of loving it, walked out of that theater feeling downright depressed. If I remember correctly, I walked right into Ponyo just to cheer myself up. Not saying it’s a bad movie or that you’re crazy for feeling otherwise, I know I’m in the very small minority with this one. And I’ll admit, the special effects were something and it had a great premise to boot, one that was frighteningly easy to trace back to the world we live in. But at the end of the day, there were two things that stuck with me most about District 9: the gratuitous violence that completely overwhelmed the final Act and Wikus van de Mewre, a man I never really cared for.
I have yet to meet another soul who shares my opinion on this matter, and that’s okay, these things happen. At any rate, that didn’t deter me from getting jazzed about Elysium. Hell, the hype train was firing on all cylinders with this one. Who wasn’t jazzed for Elysium?
You’ve got some serious name-dropping with Neill Blomkamp in the house – the “visionary director” that he is (love it when trailers say that) – plus there’s the exoskeleton (which is as boss as it looks) and Jodie Foster activating “Kruger”: the bearded mercenary who, for some awesome reason, still uses a sword in the year 2154. It was badass, I was on board. It was enough to make me ignore my suspicions that it sure did sound like Diet District 9, or better yet, District 9-meets-Wall-E. But since there’s only so much you can you can tell from a trailer, I trusted in the director’s vision.
Turns out, you actually can tell a lot from a trailer.
One thing that wasn’t exactly emphasized in the build-up for this movie was the central role that those insta-heal tanning booths on Elysium play. I’m sure the rolling hills and wine spritzers are certainly a nice bonus for these lowly Earth-dwellers, but strangely enough, that’s not why they’re risking life and limb to get on a shuttle. Believe it or not, folks, but these street rats are a lot like us. They just want universal healthcare.
Yup, that’s the bigger picture we’re dealing with here and that’s all well and good. Like I said, one of the things District 9 did well was elevate itself beyond its trigger-happy, sci-fi exterior by telling a story that was grounded in real-world issues. As the Tea Party will surely tell you, universal health care is one of those issues. The problem here is that, for all of Elysium‘s noble intentions, it just ends up getting smothered by that trigger-happy, sci-fi exterior. And at least District 9 had a story worth telling.
There’s nothing subtle about it, any of it at all. You’ve got a colony of Haves that hate a planet of Have-Nots for no discernible reason. You’ve got a run-of-the-mill hero with a predictable character arc who might as well have been named Future Jesus. You’ve got an obvious bad guy who keeps reminding you he’s the bad guy by being revolting at all times and dropping an F-bomb in every. single. scene (not an exaggeration, it’s absolutely ridiculous). The characters, their motivations, their ambitions and their dialogue are just so unbelievably blunt, stock and shaking-my-damn-head-worthy that it’s hard not to feel confused by the whole thing.
Seriously, what happened here? If you were to hand me this script and tell me it was by Neill Blomkamp, I’d half expect Ashton Kutcher to roll up with a camera crew. No effing way is this by the same guy who told a story about apartheid in South Africa through the plight of illegal aliens in the most literal possible sense. Unless I’m mistaken, that script was by a guy who knew who how to pen a constantly-evolving protagonist, who knew how to send a message without it slapping us in the face with it, who – even amidst all the blood and guts – appreciates the value of subtlety. Whoever wrote Elysium is not that guy.
I’m really at a loss with this one. Not only does it actively highlight everything that bothered me about District 9, but it also does away with everything I appreciated about District 9. As much as the needlessly high body count overshadowed that movie for me, there was still enough substance to make a lasting impression. Elysium, on the other hand, is all about the body count and any message it was trying to send about human rights is quickly lost in a flurry of flipped birds and severed limbs. It’s honestly like going from First Blood to Rambo, only Rambo was actually fun, even if it was an idiot.
The insult to injury here is that the cast isn’t helping matters whatsoever. For all that Copley won me over in The A-Team, I can’t remember the last time someone chewed the scenery and aimed for the jugular like he does in this. Much respect to the luscious beard, but dude leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Granted, that is a recurring theme with this picture, but if there’s one character that personifies everything that’s so abrasive and shallow about this movie as a whole, it’s Kruger.
I also believe that we will forever be wondering what was up with Jodie Foster as Elysium government minister Jessica Delacourt? This is how I imagine a French girl would behave and speak had she been raised by her two dads, Christopher Walken and William Shatner. The accent is bizarre, the delivery is forced and the high-strung performance bears no explanation. Truly strange stuff that’s only made worse by her character’s paper-thin motives.
With all that said, thank god for our Savior of Humanity. He doesn’t do anything all that out of the ordinary and some of the praise is earned by sheer default, but Matt Damon does his thing and does it well as Max Da Costa. Still, for a character named Max Da Costa who grows up speaking Spanish, is in love with an Hispanic girl and only has Hispanic friends, it seems pretty Hollywood to cast Damon in the role. Just sayin’.
More than anything, it’s just weird that Elysium isn’t better than it is. While District 9 established Blomkamp as a film maker to watch out for, it wasn’t the kind of movie I imagined would define his career from that point forward. It was good, it was new, but it was more of a jump-off point than a magnum opus. It was just the beginning for Blomkamp, the best was yet to come. So to see him churn out a movie like this that’s just a flying leap backwards in every way possible, my best guess is the pressure got to him. This feels like the movie that should have preceded District 9, not the other way around.
It really is weird, it really is disappointing and it wouldn’t be the case if we didn’t all know he was better than this. I wish I could say it was fun, that I’ve finally come to enjoy the many ways you can blow someone up, but anyone can make a person blow up and it was never much of a draw to begin with. The draw with Blomkamp was always in the details, the elements that made it more than just eye candy and ammo. But with the details spelled out for us in these big, dumb letters, the best I can do is chalk up a mulligan.