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Elysium – film review

August 21, 2013


Death by shaky-cam.

Reviewed on Thursday 15th August 2013

elysium - station 2013

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga and William Fichtner. Running time: 110 minutes.

It is the year 2154 and Earth is an overcrowded polluted hell hole. The wealthy elite live in luxury aboard an orbiting space station known as Elysium. Former petty criminal Max Da Costa, now an assembly line worker living in slumsville LA, only     has days to live after he is irradiated in an industrial accident. Growing weaker by     the hour, Max must turn one final trick for his former gangland boss in return for     illegal passage to Elysium to undergo medical treatment which will save his life.

This may come as a surprise to some, but I’ve never had any particular love for Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9. Sure, thematically, it is interesting in the way     it presents itself as social commentary on apartheid – in depicting alien arrivals as second class citizens (although this had been done years earlier with the movie and TV series Alien Nation). But for me – it is the execution of District 9 which is a major problem. The visual aesthetic is wildly inconsistent – switching back and forth between doco and cinematic styles willy nilly. Sharlto Copley’s character Wikus is entirely unsympathetic, superficial and his plight often difficult to care about. And the movie’s celebrated social commentary is cast aside during the second half – to make way for tired, hardware-filled action sequences which seem at odds with the tone of the film’s first half – and don’t get me started on the plot holes.

Unfortunately, some of the issues I have with District 9 resurface once again with     this – the director’s sophomore effort Elysium – although they are way more prevalent here. Additionally we have; nonsensical ham-fisted character motivation, intrusive flashbacks which add nothing, unclear motivations for the villians, and Joseph Campbell’s dog-eared hero’s journey tropes – which are clumsily shoe-horned         into the narrative.

The initial set-up that the wealthy elite have fled to Elysium to escape an overpopulated Earth is an intriguing idea with all kinds of possibilities, however, providing them with the technology to cure all medical ills and thereby effectively extending their lifespans indefinitely – essentially making them immortal – wouldn’t this ultimately create the very same dilema of overpopulation aboard Elysium? Wouldn’t this defeat the very purpose of leaving Earth in the first place? This irony would work if the film were played as satire (exploring, for example, the idea that it     is better to stand and face one’s flaws than run from them – because you carry them with you) – but Elysium takes itself way too seriously – giving the impression that this fundamental flaw in the very foundation of the premise was somehow overlooked by everyone involved. It is this simple lack of vision which undermines the entire movie – making it appear sloppy, ill-conceived and just plain dumb.

Much like Sharlto Copley’s character in District 9, Matt Damon here is pretty much only interested in himself. His motivation for breaking into Elysium is for purely selfish reasons – basically to save his own skin. And the idea put forward by the nun during flashbacks to his childhood – that he has been chosen for greatness (bringing medical attention to the needy masses) – seems to have only been added in order to try and make his character more heroic and somehow soften his apparent narcissism. Likewise, the clumsy addition of his childhood sweetheart’s little girl suffering from leukemia – has clearly been shoe-horned into the narrative in a last-ditch attempt to give his character an altruistic sense of purpose. The result of this is that Damon’s character just doesn’t ring true in terms of eliciting our sympathies. Indeed, the only sympathetic character in the entire movie is Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey, played by the lovely Alice Braga. But she is given so little to do (other than provide a half-assed and poorly utilized motivation for Matt Damon’s character) that she may as well not even be in this film. Actually, now that I think about it, this movie would have been better served if Braga’s character were the main protagonist, as she’s already demonstrated with her role in Predators – she can do gun-toting kick- ass heroine convincingly – and the motivation of Frey seeking to save the life of her gravely ill daughter is already in place. A missed opportunity perhaps?

While it’s always a joy seeing Jodie Foster onscreen, her role as Elysium’s head       of homeland security lacks depth and could easily have been played by just about anyone. And Sharlto Copley’s bizarre comic book performance is completely at odds with everyone else in the cast. His scenery-chewing turn as the mercenary hitman Kruger is so extreme in fact – it wouldn’t at all surprise me if he took inspiration from Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies in preparing for the role. His South African accent, which he appears to be exaggerating big-time, is a major distraction and doesn’t really add anything to his character. And speaking of accents – can someone please tell me what the Hell that accent is that Jodie Foster is attempting?

There is no denying the look of the film is impressive at times – if a tad derivative. The shanty town squalor of LA for example, is vividly depicted – but isn’t anything we haven’t seen already in District 9. And what little we see of Elysium itself (hardly any of the movie actually takes place aboard the titular space station until the third act)     is impressively realized – if a little lifeless and dull (why is it that all future utopias look so damn boring and sterile?). And here’s one for conspiracy lovers – is it just a coincidence that the space station (home to the world’s elite) at times resembles a giant inverted pentagram?

And while I’m on the subject of the look of the film, I can’t finish without mentioning something about the cinematography. This movie features what is perhaps the most gobsmackingly awful use of shaky-cam ever seen. The camera doesn’t so much as shake (as if being held by an unsteady hand from a distance) – it literally VIBRATES – so much so that it ceases to be real and appears to be a digital effect introduced in post. Whoever thought this effect was a good idea should be fucking ashamed of themseves and never work in film again. This bizarre effect appears twice in the film – firstly during a fight scene between Matt Damon and his gangster buddies and a couple of CG robots in a dusty lot about half an hour in. Initially I figured there was     a problem with the theatre projector, but no – it was done deliberately – possibly       to cover up what was perceived as bad CG – or so I surmised. The effect is so distracting in fact – it threw me out of the movie. The second time it appears is during the climactic showdown between Damon and Sharlto Copley aboard Elysium – it just doesn’t look like natural hand-held camera – as the shots themselves are relatively well-framed – they just vibrate as if the camera were attached to one of those paint mixing machines you might find in a hardware store. Not only is the use of this effect incredibly distracting – but it’s completely unnecessary as well – as the actual fight seems fairly well choreographed as it is.

While visually impressive at times, Elysium is ultimately a lame attempt at delivering a simplistic message we’ve all seen many times before – made worse by ham-fisted writing and unfocused direction. While not being the worst film I’ve seen this year, it saddens me to say this will be the lowest-scoring new release movie I have featured on this blog since it began – a major disappointment.

1.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed in V-Max at the Event Cinemas Marion, August 15th 2013.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.


From → film reviews

  1. Dianna Taylor permalink

    Totally agree – I compared it to Oblivison – them out there and us up here.

  2. gregory moss permalink

    Yeah, Oblivion is up there (pun intended) – along with Pacific Rim, as being my favorite genre movies this summer. 🙂

  3. Whoaaaa – low rating!!! :-/ I loved District 9 and have been really disappointed by poor reviews for Elysium as I was really looking forward to it. Still not seen it (dammit) but still want to anyway…

    • gregory moss permalink

      I much prefer writing positive reviews than negative ones – it’s just so … draining and pointless – hence the reason I didn’t review Stoker. Actually – that’s probably my review right there – ‘Draining and pointless.’ 🙂

      • Well, I inspired someone to watch Stoker with my review and they hated it. Oops! Lol!

      • gregory moss permalink

        Hey don’t feel so bad … I thought you did a fair and balanced review. If you tell someone it may not be a good idea to jump off that cliff and they go ahead and do it anyway – it’s their problem! 🙂

  4. Bloody hell, 1.5 out of 5?

    I really wanted to see this but it looks like another blu-ray (maybe a Xmas prezzie).

    How strange/depressing that the frustrating Oblivion looks to have been the seasons best genre film. Shocking really.

    • gregory moss permalink

      At least we have Pacific Rim. And there’s always the upcoming Gravity to look forward to. 🙂

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