'Elysium' review: Well-made sci-fi film, not well-written story
This grim sci-fi flick amazes with its richly realized world and innovative ideas, however, it disappoints with a flat story at its core.
In short: In the future, the poor are left to live on a heavily polluted and rapidly deteriorating Earth while the wealthy live aboard Elysium, a luxurious space station. A struggling ex-con fights (Matt Damon) to make his way to Elysium, where medical technology there can save his life. (watch the trailer)
Without the a doubt, director Neill Blomkamp is the big draw for 'Elysium,' his first follow-up to the incredible 'District 9,' which is notably one of the few science fiction films to receive a Oscar nod for Best Picture. 'District 9' is acclaimed for its writing, visual effects, story and originality. Unfortunately, 'Elysium' does not live up to the expectations of 'District 9' fans.
Blomkamp once again creates a rich world to root his story in. The dilapidated, third-world vision of 22nd century Los Angeles is incredibly fleshed out and brilliantly realized. Likewise, the privileged and wealthy 'Elysium' environment is beautifully brought to life and impressive in its scale and opulence. The movie's visual effects are simply used for the fight scenes or space ships - much of it is wisely used to make these two contrasting worlds vividly come to life.
If the fundamental structure of 'Elysium'- that of 'afflicted hero fights to access life-saving technology' - feels familiar, it's because 'Elysium,' from a story structure standpoint, is strikingly similar to that of 'District 9.' No spoilers here, but this similarity is a disappointing because the originality of 'District 9' was one of its strengths.
At some point, the hero's journey is side-tracked when he acquires a 'MacGuffin' - which is code for 'lazily explained plot device that forces the story forward.' The protagonist's goal of saving his own life on Elysium gets lumped into a whole other story line involving a power struggle among Elysium's bureaucracy. While this serves in making Damon's character a marked man, it also muddies the core story.
Adding to the story problem are a number of questionably necessary characters - namely a hawkish Elysium government official rocking a weird affected accent (Jodie Foster) and a love interest who does little to actually contribute to the plot (Alice Braga).
Once again Sharlto Copley steals the show in a Blomkamp film - but this time as a bloodthirsty antagonist. Copley's mentally unstable and violently psychotic Elysium operative commands every scene he is in - he swings fluidly from unsettling to terrifying and even, at times, to bizarrely charming.
It must be mentioned that 'Elysium' is perhaps a little more violent and graphic than a moviegoer might expect. While plenty of nameless characters are shot, several are exploded, broken and one even has their face literally blown off. One medical surgery scene is particularly a little more graphic than anticipated.
Finally, by taking some easy but unearned shots at the wealthy, 'Elysium' squanders away an opportunity for some heady 'haves-have nots' social commentary. While the Elysium station/world is beautifully rendered in CGI, it's never fully explored or examined - other than to say, 'the rich people are withholding tech from the poor.' By making little-to-no effort in fleshing out the Elysium society, the film undermines its own themes of privilege, wealth gaps and citizenship.
The undeniable take away of 'Elysium' is Neill Blomkamp is a true visionary director - an artist whose films have a distinct and unique flavor.
Final verdict: 'Elysium' barely has more good aspects (thrilling action sequences and a fun villain) than failures (overall story and plot devices). That said, it's entertaining if it's a little disappointing - but arguably worth the cinema ticket price.