Elysium: Crawling Through Tartarus

ElysiumThe most fitting metaphor for describing the experience of watching Elysium was how I found myself slowly slumping in my chair, how my hand began to prop up my head, how my eyes started drifting in and out of focus. As spaceships barrelled through star-strewn space toward an enormous hikikomori orbital station high above the Earth’s atmosphere, I started to wonder what I’d have at McDonalds after the film ended. I started to wonder what Jodie Foster’s accent was meant to be. I couldn’t understand it: why was I so bored?  The answer is simple. Elysium – for all the posturing of its politics, for all the shimmering beauty of its visuals, for all the A-list stars in its cast – crumbles to pieces around one simple, glaring failure: audience engagement.

Disengagement on a fundamental level characterises every last frame of this colossal disappointment. It’s a blemish on the résumé of its very talented writer/director Neill Blomkamp and, perhaps most damningly of all, it’s a head-scratching waste of potential. The premise is solid, the cast is stellar, the direction (when the frame isn’t shaking all over the place) and effects are beautiful – what went wrong? Moreover, what went right? Very few things, as it turns out.

It’s 2154 and Max de Costa (Matt Damon) lives on a desolate and overpopulated Earth, dreaming of being on Elysium, an enormous orbital station populated entirely by the fabulously wealthy. The rich on Elysium have Med-Pods which heal all manner of illnesses and injuries; they live a life of luxury while the poor back on Earth live in barebone slums. After receiving a lethal dose of radiation in an accident at work, de Costa is given 5 days to live and resolves to break into Elysium to cure himself.

Blomkamp’s screenplay is patronising in its simplicity, bloated on its own importance and riddled with clichés, traipsing down a brown and beige road of formulaic cobblestones. Oh, look, our main protagonist is told he is destined for great things (slow-mo, soft-focus, oft-repeated flashbacks tell us as much). Oh, boy, the only residents of Elysium that we ever see up-close are amoral, bureaucratic powermongers (they’re like that because they’re rich). Gee whiz, I wonder if the hero will be swayed by the little girl (answers on a postcard).

The elegance and vivacity that made Blomkamp’s (only) previous film District 9 so appealing is completely absent; he resorts to browbeating us over the head with his ideas until we are forced to acknowledge them. They’re really not difficult to comprehend either: rich people being better off than poor people is bad. Overpopulation is bad. Attitudes toward immigration are bad. National healthcare is good. We. Get. It.

The greatest strength of District 9 was its plausibility, how easy it was to immerse oneself in that crafted world. The premise of Elysium, while good on paper, eschews believability for caricature and plausibility for banality, losing the audience’s empathy and patience as a result. There’s nothing clever, thoughtful or insightful here, just a railroad from one obvious political statement to another with no rhyme or reason inbetween, unable to muster any worthwhile social critique in the process.

Thank God for Sharlto Copley then. As he did in District 9, Copley carries the overbearing, condescending weight of the film on his charismatic shoulders, playing a psychopathic mercenary in Foster’s employ. When onscreen he mercifully fills it with his manic aura. Copley is a bearded, crazy-eyed dynamo, imbuing the film with a sense of urgency and purpose that is otherwise so desperately lacking. Samurai sword in hand, psychotic grin on his face, Copley owns it. It’s a godsend that he does because nothing elsewhere even comes close to matching his demented intensity, even if he does at times look like he wandered in off the set of Mad Max.

Performances from the rest of the cast are less magnetic. Damon is given nothing to work with, no one to play off and spends much of the film trudging along not doing much in particular, looking a bit miffed. Perhaps the reason for this nonchalance is his status as third pick for the role behind (get this) Eminem and Die Antwoord’s Ninja. I’m not even joking.

Oscar-winner Foster fares far worse: her accent is all over the place (is she French? American? South African? All three?) and her delivery of clunky lines is rigidly stilted, even when it’s been blatantly re-dubbed – there are moments when the words being spoken don’t even come close to matching her mouth movements.

She teeters on the brink of Shatnerian, injecting bizarre pauses and accent acrobatics, ultimately landing on the wrong side of camp. Wagner Moura as a wildly-gesticulating, Che Guevara-esque freedom fighter is also poor, garbling his lines with mumbled slurs. William Fichtner makes the most of his 10 minutes of screen-time but is otherwise wasted. No one receives development beyond their cardboard motivations. There are no arcs; just flat, horizontal lines from first scene to last.

Visceral action sequences are ruined, rendered incomprehensible disasters by unacceptable shakiness, frustrating the audience and further straining its already flimsy connection with them. Who’s got a knife, sorry? Where’s the gun gone? How did he get thrown over there? Even rather standard shots of Matt Damon walking through crowded streets are plagued by shaky-cam, almost as if the frame is trying to break out of the production it’s trapped in. If the intended effect is immersion, it only succeeds in inducing nausea. In the Brechtian fashion, we are only made more aware of the artifice.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity is the lack of time spent with the residents of Elysium proper, creating a narrative imbalance. No doubt the intended effect is to see Elysium as a Garden of Eden cipher but, since it is very much a palpable location with palpable people, we are left mystified as to the daily goings-on. As with the rest of the film it lacks substance, a good idea spread too thin, an allegorical paper tiger.

Lacking bark or bite, Elysium attempts to compensate for its narrative weightlessness with orchestral BWOMMMs and laser explosions but these are trifles; the greatest disappointment is we’ve seen everything in the film before and we’ve seen it done better. It fails to capitalise on the wealth of its ideas, a capital crime when the film is ostensibly a $100 million vehicle for those very ideas. Blomkamp can’t be faulted for his ambition, literally lofty as it is, but he can do so much better than this.