This ain’t no District 9
Blomkamp’s Elysium delivers in special effects, fails in many other aspects
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 cinematic debut, District 9, took the world by surprise. I, for one, was blow out of my socks by the crispness and realism of the special effects that this young director managed to conjure, and by the originality and the depth — nay, the poetry — of the story he had written. It remains one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time, and I can’t wait for the sequel, District 10. But with Elysium, Blomkamp has committed the same sin of his godfather, Peter Jackson, who followed the triumph of his filmmaking career, The Return of the King, with the painfully vacuous King Kong: letting ego and ambition get in the way of artistic integrity, and failing to see that a story — even one from his own pen — can be cheesy and unworthy of being made into a film.
Elysium tells the story of a man, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), living 150 years from now on a wasteland Los Angeles, California, as he pursues his lifelong dream: to save enough money to leave Earth and go live in Elysium, a space colony for the rich and famous. While cities on Earth have all gone to the dogs and become endless Mexican landfills with crappy jobs and even crappier health care, the City in the Sky has nothing but mansions, gardens and top-notch medicine. Through a convoluted series of events, Max finally gets to go to Elysium, but with such bad luck that by then he is dying and has become the human equivalent of a floppy disk. When he gets to Elysium he faces an Ethics 101 dilemma: run to the healing machine to save himself or to give up his life to save a sick little girl and all of mankind.
In the special effects department, Blomkamp again scores a home run. I don’t know how he does it, but by golly he is good! However, he strikes out on at least three other fronts. First, Matt Damon is very much miscast as Max Da Costa. Damon is very talented and gives the role all he has. But he was the wrong man for the job. Edgar Ramírez may have been a better fit. The second strike is the ridiculous villain that Max has to fight: Kruger, played unfortunately by Sharlto Copley (who was magnificent as Wikus in District 9). Kruger is an interesting character for the first half of the film. But in the second half he develops out of the blue a totally gratuitous hatred of Max and decides he has nothing better to do in life than to kill him. Even when his face is blown away by an explosion, his minions put him in the healing machine, reconstruct him and send him off again to continue to try to kill Max. The only thing more ridiculous that such unwarranted hatred is Kruger’s voice, which is not only unintelligible but also totally independent from the movements of Copley’s lips. I do not remember a moment in the film where his mouth moved in a pattern that matched his speech. Why this is so remains a mystery to me. The final fight between Kruger and Max is excruciatingly long and bad, like a caricature or a prank, as if Blomkamp was trying to deliberately sabotage his own film by inserting a nonsensical and prolonged fistfight to the death between two guys that have no reason to hate each other. The third and final strike is the formulaic story that gives the movie, from the first frames to the last ones, a sense of deja vu that underwhelmed me beyond what I can express.
Garcia Marquez said once that a great writer is one who knows what to throw away. With Elysium, Neill Blomkamp has proven that he is still not a great writer. I hope he is more selective of his future projects, or he may follow M. Night Shyamalan in the road to oblivion.