This summer’s predicted blockbusters have seen extremely and unexpectedly poor performances. “Pacific Rim” and “R.I.P.D,” while both primed for international success, did nothing to create buzz among audiences or garner interest among critics. “The Lone Ranger” is responsible for a $190 million loss at Disney. With the spectacular flops that have filled our screens this season, some have been touting “Elysium,” the sci-fi thriller starring Matt Damon out Aug. 9, as the savior of the summer.
It certainly has potential, but it is by no means a sure thing. Neill Blomkamp, the mind behind “District 9,” which was released at a similar time of year in August 2009 and received four Oscar nominations, has brought us another tech-filled dystopia. “Elysium” tells the story of Max (Damon), a former petty criminal who is trying to start his life anew. He lives in Los Angeles in 2154, on a planet that is so polluted, overpopulated and impoverished that years ago, the elite and affluent fled to the Elysium space habitat, where machines exist that can cure any illness and even death.
Max is working his blue-collar job in his slum town, building robots, when he is critically injured. To survive, he must make it to one of these machines in Elysium. This quest sets off a series of events that cause Max to reconnect with some of his old, seedy friends: Spider, a man desperately working to send Earth’s needy to Elysium, and Julio, an expert in grand theft auto. Spider gives Max a job in exchange for a ride to Elysium, but when the mission goes horribly wrong, the leaders of Elysium place a target on Max’s back. He becomes the No. 1 enemy of a woman named Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster, who commissions a trained killer, Kruger, to find him on Earth.
The plot sounds complicated, and despite these details, it gets even more involved, but writer and director Blomkamp’s storytelling moves so quickly and astutely that viewers would never think twice about how complex it is until they try to explain it to someone else. In interviews, Blomkamp has claimed that this is not a sci-fi film. “Elysium,” he said, is already happening today. He said he does not view this dystopia as inevitability; he views it as a current reality. As he dealt with racism in “District 9,” he deals with class structure and dysfunction throughout “Elysium.”
Again, like “District 9,” Blomkamp and his extensive team create a special-effects driven world in which the CGI robots, flying cars and spaceships blend seamlessly with the slum-filled, dirt-covered Earth. Unlike its current counterparts like “Pacific Rim,” where visual effects are a spectacle and meant to be understood as special and unreal, “Elysium” is filled with effects that seem to be organic creations of their milieu. They look so believable that it is at times easy to forget that they are there at all. The film editing and the visual effects are on par with the award-nominated pieces of Blomkamp’s past works. Unfortunately, this seems to be where the similarities end.
While Damon and Foster are wonderful actors to watch, there are some problematic parts to their roles. Damon, sadly, does not seem to be anything other than his usual self. He has played so many leading-man action roles that he comes off as just Damon rather than as a character. There was no additional life to Max, and the screenplay did not give him much material with which to work. His drive to get to Elysium stems from his need to survive, which is a bit boring in itself, and then it transitions into helping his childhood friend — and possible current love interest — Frey, played by Alice Braga. The relationship between Max and Frey is a whisper of a storyline. The two actors barely have any chemistry, and we find ourselves being told that the two have a special connection instead of being shown that they do. As a plot point, Frey’s addition is clever, but it is by no means believable or necessary to the story.
Max is underdeveloped, as is his enemy, Delacourt. Though Foster plays an evil, politically driven baddie very well, her character received no sort of backstory or motivation, making her very two-dimensional. All we really know about Delacourt is that she wants to move up her career ladder, but we don’t know why, which makes it difficult to even care. Possibly to facilitate the complex plot, it seems that character development was not a priority within the story.
The saving grace of the characters is the creepy villain, Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley. Blomkamp worked with Copley in “District 9,” and he seems perfectly suited for this role as well. Kruger is a scoundrel of a man with horrible intentions. He is impetuous and angry for seemingly no other reason than bloodlust. He is, simply, terrifying and evil. We receive little to no background about Kruger, but as a plain old villain whose actions show exactly how rash and crazed he is, we know there is little to no method to his madness. His transparent characterization works because his aggression is already unbelievable; he works as a two-dimensional caricature of a villain. Delacourt — who is clearly intelligent, is making political power moves and is a realistic figure — suffers for her lack of character development even as a villain.
Despite problems with the characters themselves, the action sequences are inventive, as is the world in which “Elysium” takes place. It’s an interesting take on the dystopias that have been popular of late, as Blomkamp’s politics are easy to spot and convincing. Essentially, if viewers are unable to see the connection to today’s economic and cultural landscape, then they have missed a large part of the film. The actors do their best with the lines they are given, which are sparse, most likely due to the overall pace of the intricate plot.
Luckily for Hollywood, “Elysium” still has a chance of becoming a giant blockbuster. It has an action star at the helm and a trusted, award-winning creator. It has exciting effects and is thoughtfully driven. Though it probably will not flop as heavily as its predecessors this summer, it may not take off as some may think. Blockbusters do well because they are easy escapes from the day-to-day, perfect for lazy summer days. “Elysium” is anything but lazy and does not have the ease of some of the kitschier fare we usually spot every August. While it could be winning for weeks, it really could go either way.