You can tell writer/director Neil Blomkamp went into Elysium wanting to tell a metaphorical story about healthcare in America.
In principle, developing a story from an idea or theme is not a problem, but if you fail to build strong characters and an interesting plot, the film will be underwhelming. This is the biggest problem with Elysium.
Blomkamp’s Elysium takes place in the near future and follows Max (Matt Damon), a hard working stiff who lives on the destroyed earth. After an accident at work, Max plans to go to Elysium, a ring shaped utopian spaceship (Halo don’t sue them for the design), where the rich live. On Elysium, Max plans to use a device that can heal his wound and save his life.
The plot is very simple, playing out as a traditional “storm the castle” scenario. There will be no surprises in this plot, but nothing is ludicrous either. In the end, many scenes just feels too simple, with Blomkamp taking potentially complex events and dumbing them down. Simplicity is not always a problem (this is what made Pacific Rim so fun), however when you play up that your characters are experts in these scenarios, you want the tasks to be new challenges that they have never faced before. If they’re not challenging, it comes off as if the characters need to put no effort to succeed and that diffuses all the tension and excitement in the scene. This is such a disappointment, because Blomkamp showed that he could manage a complex plot with District 9 and that is probably why that film was more engaging.
However, similarly to District 9 was Elysium’s visuals, which were great. Blomkamp once again goes a long way with a little budget and makes CGI look fantastic and realistic. When you can’t tell the difference between CGI objects and real objects, it is a real success for the visual’s team. Also, outside of some unneeded shaky cam (do we really need to show turmoil when he is walking to work?), the camera work is top notch and every action scene is framed well, making it easy to figure out where each person is in the scene.
Another great element of Elysium is the film’s world building. Both earth and elysium are incredibly detailed. With the broken down (missing roofs and all) shacks and dirt covered streets of earth acting as perfect opposites to the almost sterile environment of grass lawns and mansions that inhabit Elysium. From a visual perspective, it is very easy to tell the rich apart from the poor and being able to easily to make that distinction is one of the film’s greatest successes. As with District 9, Blomkamp once again proves that he has a unique visual signature and that is one of his strengths as a director.
In terms of the other part of directing, you know directing actors, Blomkamp seems to have more trouble. Best case in point, the decisions made between him and Jodie Foster on her character. What were they thinking? Foster, a usually very capable actor, speaks with this impossibly to describe bad accent and devourers the scenery with her laughable acting. It’s saddening that these are choices Blomkamp and Foster made for the all important villain.
Maybe we can’t blame it all on the directing and acting because the character just wasn’t interesting. In fact, none of the characters were interesting. It’s sad because Damon’s Max has all the elements of three dimensional character. We have a background, clear motives, and a unique way of acting, but he just comes off as flat and un-engaging because the journey Blomkamp takes him on is not interesting. First off, Blomkamp decides to gloss over the most interesting part of Max’s character, his journey from being a criminal to a hard working, good guy. That story had the potential for moral decisions, as Max has to chose to act selfishly, as a criminal, or selflessly, as a good guy. That film could have Max struggle, which creates sympathy from the audience, and eventually change to be a more selfless human being.
Instead, Blomkamp makes the decision to not go down this route, which isn’t a problem if his story is ripe with many moral choices. It sadly isn’t and most of Max’s decisions are obvious, with any decent person making the same choices. While the film does have one moral decision at the end (which feels tacked on as a silly plot device), we already know what decision Max is going to make, because at the beginning of the film, he is already established as a selfless human being. That means the scene has no tension and is kind of boring. What I’m really trying to get at, is that there is no character growth for Max, and because of that, I don’t care if he is successful. If I don’t care about the characters, what is the point of me watching the film?
If you’re super excited, see it matinee, but it is preferably viewed at home.