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Film Review: Elysium

Elysium opens in wide release today August 9th.

Sometimes film fans are our own worst enemy. We find something that we really like and latch onto it. Even better if it’s coming from someone new and is little known, because there is no denying that hibernating hipster that undoubtedly resides deep within all of us. Look, a fresh face, a wealth of undiscovered talent with great potential bubbling within. We hold on for dear life as we spread word of the film’s wonder. We jump up and down with unbridled excitement as we hear of the bright mind’s new idea. Celebration erupts as he gains relevancy and is approached with respect. How we adore those first set pictures. Through the ecstatic whirlwind we become blind to the lofty expectations. What can we expect but disappointment? Elysium would have to break new ground, rather than presenting above average science fiction, to keep up with us.

It’s the year 2154 and the world has fallen to pieces. Earth is overpopulated, polluted and its people riddled with disease. The rich reside high above the planet on the station Elysium; a utopia without sickness, aging or violence. Max (Matt Damon) has lived his entire life with the dream of one day living on Elysium. In his quest to gain enough funds, he has turned to a life of crime. Now on parole and attempting to stay on the straight and narrow, he works on the line at a factory. When a workplace mishap leaves Max sick with radiation exposure, he is only given days to live. In a last ditch effort to make his way to Elysium and cure his illness, he undertakes a mission that could very well change life for everyone.

sharltocopleyelysiumDistrict 9 was one hell of a debut, grounded science fiction with arresting visuals, a politically relevant and irresistibly interesting story all with great action and a charming lead actor. It won over the hearts of sci-fi fans and the general public. The film even got nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year at the Oscars. In short, Neill Blomkamp was kind of screwed before he even started looking at his next script.

Matt Damon;Sharlto CopleyElysium is not a bad film. In fact, it is often quite good. For your eyes alone, it is spectacular. Sure, the dystopian surroundings are quite similar to those displayed in District 9, simply dialed to eleven. Before it is specified that the cityscape is that of Los Angeles I thought we must be in South America, for how can our beloved Hollywood have crumbled so marvelously. But that’s the thing, Los Angeles has not so much crumbled, as been abandoned and moved to the heavens. Elysium’s grand homes, perfectly groomed lawns and sparkling waters are the ideal of California living, an Apple store as residence. Blomkamp makes both settings immediately authentic. You can nearly touch the details in the surroundings; feel the grime creep under your fingernails and the sun bake your skin.  Days could be spent just trying to take in all of the awe-inspiring world building.

The film is most definitely science fiction, but not in that fantastic way. The film puts forth its people as constants. Time may change the technology at our disposable, but at our core, we remain the same. If we discount the odd accents put on by the upper crust of Elysium (just strange enough to distract and lacking the commitment to be believable), the characters would blend right in with the people of today. Blomkamp utilizes the genre to tell a current story in a futuristic setting. It is a nice reminder to those science fiction detractors that regardless of the setting, a human story can still connect.

jodieHowever, there is something keeping Elysium from being great. The story itself is a bit messy and when you dig beneath the gorgeous surface reveals plenty of holes. The politics of it all, where subtle in District 9, announce themselves with the hush of a bullhorn. The Jesus symbolism was tired when The Matrix did it, and manages to feel even more derivative in this film’s overt delivery. The sheer amount of retconning that takes place within the film makes many comic books look grounded. As a general rule when watching Elysium, don’t believe anything as it is presented, because chances are it’ll change for little reason other than convenience. The action is hard-hitting, unflinchingly brutal and usually entertaining, but at times a hyperkinetic camera makes the fights hard to follow and confusing. By the end, the film’s message forcibly commandeers the ship and left me dizzy from massive eye rolling.

matt fightingOur heightened expectations threaten to ruin more than their share of experiences. The internet and a tell-me-everything-now culture, only exacerbates the issue. Blomkamp has turned in more than a serviceable science fiction film in Elysium, but it will probably disappoint many of his fans. The film excels in its visuals. In the realm of futuristic world building, Blomkamp is eminently talented. Unfortunately, the film’s story isn’t quite up to snuff. Its character choices are weak, although the acting is great across the board with Matt Damon especially reminding us just how good he is at action. Very few actions have true consequences with many effects being reversed as quickly as they occur. The symbolism lands with a resounding thud and entire sections of the film (I’m looking at you lens flaring and slow-mo bathing flashbacks) slow the film to a crawl in their tedium. Elysium is a fantastic looking film with brutally arresting action and confident science fiction sensibilities, but a messy plot and heavy handed politics keep it from being truly memorably great.

Keep up with Derek’s latest film thoughts and follow him on Twitter @DerekDeskins.

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