Sunday, September 29, 2013


movie review

Elysium ***

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Written and directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Tagline: He can save us all

Whether they have been through books or films or television shows, all of my recent encounters with dystopian science fiction have led me to the same conclusion: dystopia is getting exasperatingly overcrowded. It's a setting that can potentially offer thoroughly intriguing tales, but is being used so frequently, callously, and lazily that its mechanics are becoming predictable and losing their charm.

But when it was announced that District 9's Neill Blomkamp was working on a dystopic science fiction action thriller, it was easy to be optimistic. Add Matt Damon and Jodie Foster to the mix, and you know the project definitely has potential. But was this potential capitalized on or squandered?

It's the year 2154, and the world has fallen into disarray. The poor live on a devastated Earth that is policed by robots, while the rich have moved to a space station called Elysium where they live in luxury and comfort. Amidst this divide, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an assembly line worker at Armadyne Corp., stuck in the hostile conditions that plague the planet. But things are just about to get even worse for him. A work accident exposes him to lethal levels of radiation, giving him only five days to live. Thus begins his quest to get to Elysium, so that he can use a medical device known as the med-bay to save his life.

That, however, is easier said than done, as Elysium's Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster) makes sure that all attempts by illegal immigrants from Earth to reach the space habitat are thwarted, no matter what the cost. When President Patel (Faran Tahir) reprimands her for shooting down shuttles carrying asylum seekers, Jessica hatches a plot to usurp power with the help of Armadyne's CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner).

Max and Delacourt's plans collide, as the action starts to kick in and the film picks up its pace. How events unfold, however, is fairly conventional and often predictable. Blomkamp does a good job bringing both the worlds to life on the screen, and the film is visually impressive. But he fails to come up with a different take on this setup. The South African-Canadian filmmaker's 2009 sci-fi thriller District 9 was different, unconventional, and ambitious - and that's everything Elysium is not. The film breaks no new ground and doesn't do anything exceptionally fascinating. And in light of the inevitable comparisons to his far superior directorial debut, it is a letdown.

Among the things that underwhelm is the filmmakers' decision to use generic characters that lack complexity. Shades of gray make characters compelling, and they are often either negligible or completely missing here. A cursory attempt is made, for instance, to suggest that Jodie Foster's character thinks she is doing the right thing, but we are never left in any doubt that this is not the case. The bad guy is just that, a bad guy, and isn't given enough depth to make him more intriguing. Yes Sharlto Copley makes a menacing mercenary, but his character is too one-dimensional. There is only so much the cast can do with the material they're given after all. Matt Damon is on autopilot as the everyman action hero. Jodie Foster has played more interesting roles and given better performances throughout her career. Faran Tahir doesn't have enough screen time and his character is never fully explored. And Alice Braga's Frey doesn't hold nearly as much emotional resonance as she should; as Max's childhood friend and the mother of a young girl who has leukaemia, Frey's emotional connections aren't nearly as investing as they could have been. Plus the film doesn't explore the space habitat as much as it should have; it might have been interesting to spend more time on Elysium itself and get to know some of its average citizens instead of just its main political occupants.

That said, Elysium is certainly not a mess. The film is very watchable, and even enjoyable if you're in the mood for a relatively straightforward action blockbuster. The writing, directing, action, storyline - it's all serviceable, but there's nothing special or memorable about it. This isn't particularly smart or clever science fiction, even though it probably wants to be, and the socio-political commentary it doles out (by raising the issues of immigration, health care, economic divide, and social equality) is too heavy-handed to be palatable. But Elysium does have its merits: the world it transports you to is interesting (albeit not in any way original), there are some impressive action sequences in the movie, and the cinematography is effective. And if you're not too demanding, the film can certainly be entertaining.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 29th September, 2013

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