Cinematic Releases: Elysium

What is happening to all of my favorite directors? My obvious rhetoric can easily be answered with this: Hollywood.

Neil Blomkamp, creator of the very welcome breath of fresh South African ghetto air in the form of District 9, goes on to make an equally unique sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium, though replete with an exoskeleton-deep message wrapped around a film that had potential to be something truly special.

Nods in the trailers lend to a high concept sci-fi flick, but it ends there with a great concept. Here's a big idea, throw in some robots, and some cyborg stuff. OK... GO! There's nothing explored. Nothing much said, save for an all too brief catch-me-up preceding the events that unfold. Any kind of intriguing world-building trails off at that point. But it all goes kaboom! Clearly I must be nit-picking if I can't enjoy something because robots and guns, am I right?!

Admittedly, yes, the action and special effects are pretty rad, with the edge going to design and function of the robots themselves. They look very believable. It's getting more and more difficult these days to see where robot CGI ends and reality begins. Impressive stuff. And Matt Damon gets to punch them! There are some good action segments, but not a whole lot -- if at all -- anything you've never seen before. It doesn't help that 90% of the film is shot with claustrophobic shaky-cam because you can't compose a believable urban warfare setting without it these days. Otherwise, it doesn't feel genuine, man! It only made me want to feed the camera operators Diazepam just to make sure I didn't have to feel like I was in a Michael J. Fox simulator. I just want to watch a movie. I don't need someone waving a camera around like an idiot to make me feel like I'm totally there, dude.

For a film that's not a sequel, or based on a comic-book, novel, or 80's kid's show, it's surprisingly derivative in spite of its unique position this summer. It's an original big budget film, and like Pacific Rim -- bless its heart -- still suffers from offering almost nothing new, unexpected, or exciting. I could have told you almost the entire plot of the film before I had seen it. Nothing whatsoever in Elysium was a delightful surprise. There was no moment where I went, "Oh, wow, now that's interesting!" Beat for beat, trope for trope, Elysium is a paint-by-numbers Hollywood sci-fi flick. Don't let its shiny new exterior fool you, the interior is the same old ride we've been on again and again.

Sharlto Copley, however, is the very best part of the film, and is worth seeing just for his performance. Copley never disappoints and he twists out a truly gnarly bad guy by the name of Kruger. He charmingly traverses that line of being simultaneously as unlikable as he is alluring to watch. He's brutal. He's sinisterly funny. And he's unmistakably off his rocker. Every moment he was on screen made it worth my $10.

On the flipside, Jodie Foster was silly as hell and wouldn't stop bobbing her head around with nearly every syllable she laughably tried to pronounce with what she calls an accent. I thought these were professional actors? Alright, Jodie, that was good, but the audience won't believe you're a huge bitch unless you wobble your head around and lose your accent every other word. Oh, yeah, that was great. Here's your paycheck that won't go toward paying the medical bills of children who need it. The irony is almost morbidly hilarious.

Matt Damon was forgettable. Anyone could have played his part.

Not all is a total loss, but everyone's going to love this movie anyway and I'm sure someone will love to argue with me about how I'm missing the point. But, the 1%, man! The message is timely and important, and stuff, brah! Yeah, I got it. Really, that's cool and all, but I can put a sticker on my crotch that says, "Animal Cruelty Sucks," but that's not gonna get me laid by hippie chicks if I don't know how to carry a conversation over chamomile tea and a hookah about what goes into making Slim Jims. Elysium pretends it has something to say, but when you take out the robots and the crazy villain, there really isn't anything terribly great about it.

Regardless of the script basically handing characters one convenient device after another to move the plot forward, and elegant female computer voices informing the audience of things they can just read or assess on their own if they're not drooling vegetables wheeled in for their 2 hours of fun every week, Elysium had its moments. Yeah, Kruger rocks socks, and there's some fun explosive violence, usually accompanied by a few kickass robots. The design of Elysium (the habitat, not the film) reminds me of a ton of fascinating sci-fi artwork I actually peruse frequently -- don't judge me -- and the core concept shows a lot of promise, but falls short in the face of Hollywood's typical fear to take any bigger risks.

It's a shame because District 9 didn't need to adhere to just about any convention to be remarkably successful. Why did Blomkamp stop there?

- Review by J.G. Barnes