Neill Blomkamp Suffers Major Sophomore Slump With "Elysium"

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s debut, “District 9,” was a serviceable sci-fi pic, made all the more impressive by its relatively miniscule budget – a mere $30 million. As an allegory for South Africa’s apartheid era, it cleverly subbed in a race of space aliens for Cape Town’s real-life second-class citizens. And while the film was short on plot, ultimately overstaying its welcome, it saw considerable critical and commercial success, and its creator became something of a torchbearer for original science fiction.

With “Elysium,” all of the promise that Blomkamp showed with “District 9” has gone up in smoke, in its place the same narrative shortcomings as its predecessor, but magnified. Tenfold. The film is a long, protracted slide from mediocrity to awfulness, failing to engage its characters in the story that surrounds them, and losing its audience in the process. Its visuals are intermittently impressive, but not enough to justify the jump in budget (it cost $70 million more than “District 9”), and its cast routinely struggles with the screenplay’s unwavering clunkiness.

The story, which reads like it was written by a college freshman that just discovered the work of Noam Chomsky, begins on Earth, circa 2154. The planet’s become one giant landfill, overrun with poverty, crime, and disease, with its wealthier inhabitants having fled to a luxurious space station, the titular Elysium. Matt Damon stars as Max, a rehabilitated car thief who works in the same factory that produces Los Angeles’ brutal, robotic police force. When he’s accidentally subjected to a fatal amount of radiation, Max decides to go to Elysium to cure himself.

How, you ask? The citizens of Elysium conveniently have the ability to cure anyone of anything, as seen when a spaceship of “illegals” crash lands there and a sobbing mother rushes her ailing daughter to the nearest house – all of which are equipped with a magical “cure anything” machine. Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, an overzealous government agent who doesn’t think twice about shooting down said spaceships. The only thing worse than Foster’s accent (French? English?) and dismal ADR (dubbing) work is her character’s tangential relationship to the story. She serves no purpose other than playing up the “rich people are evil” angle and as a kind of animal trainer to the barely subservient psychopath, Kruger.

As portrayed by Sharlto Copley, Kruger is the most interesting character in the piece. That he becomes a wildly over-the-top WWE villain in the third act is particularly unfortunate, as his menacing gaze and warbling, staccato vocals – think a sociopathic, cocaine-addled Dana Carvey – are the only things remotely captivating about “Elysium.” He’s the kind of diseased baddie that this kind of film typically lacks, so that he’s mostly wasted only underlines Blomkamp’s inability to make anything click, even his biggest assets. When Kruger begins clumsily taunting his adversaries near the pic’s climax, it’s clear that Kruger doesn’t have the depth that we might have hoped for. He’s as one-dimensional the film he’s in.

Matt Damon is a fine actor but entirely wrong in the lead role here. The screenplay is dour, with all the elegance and subtlety of a Nickelback album, meaning that it required a charismatic, limber leading man to carry the story through its many rough spots. Like, for example, when Damon and Alice Braga (as Frey, Max’s uninteresting love interest) are faced with an entirely unearned emotional scene concerning Frey’s sick daughter. Damon doesn’t have the charm or the gravitas to elevate such a hackneyed scene, and instead of misty eyes it evokes eye rolls.

It’s remarkable how few of the film’s characters have anything to do with its narrative thrust, and by the time a band of Max’s compatriots land on Elysium, mysteriously undetected, it seems as though Blomkamp has given up on everything but his visuals. With all of the talent and money involved in its production, the wrongheadedness of the film is inexplicable, as if its creator got caught up in his own hype. The naïve, heavy-handed politics of “Elysium” aren’t a plus, but they’re not a back-breaker. No, that would be the form that they take – a limp, unoriginal, and disheveled script read by a cast that doesn’t seem to be able to make any sense of it, either.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: August 9, 2013
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriter: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout)