Before moving on to some of 2014’s blockbusters, I’ve decided to repost some reviews of American blockbusters released by HuaXia and China Film Group last year, which I had initially published on my now defunct Tumblr.
Written & Directed by Neill Blomkamp / Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga / Cinematography by Trent Opaloch / Music by Ryan Amon / Production by Alphacore, Media Rights Capitol, QED International
As the world’s ecology fails and its population soars, the gated communities of the rich and powerful will transfer themselves to Elysium, an off-world space station of exclusive luxury, where services will be performed by robots and almost everyone will have more or less forgotten about the underlings left to rot on the deteriorating Earth. The slums of Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Manila and countless other overpopulated, crime-ridden cities will become the norm for earthlings and upward mobility will become a social impossibility. In the slums of Los Angeles, cue-balled Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is a cheeky blue-collar worker with a heart of gold, who one day finds himself exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the robot factory. Given only five days to live, Max’s only chance for survival is to reach Elysium and get inside one of its incredible med pods, which can take care of everything from repairing catastrophic tissue damage to curing cancer. Teaming up with a crew of revolution-minded hackers and propping his deteriorating body up with a super exoskeleton, Max sets out to infiltrate the space station and override its protocols to make every citizen of the Earth a citizen of Elysium, something the Elysian government and its fascistic Defence Secretary, Delacort (Jodie Foster), want desperately to prevent.
South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s visual aesthetic has evolved little, if at all, since District 9 (2009), which is scarcely a point against him, given that District 9‘s relentlessly grubby look is so distinctive and so much more finely judged and designed than many other “gritty” action flicks of recent years. Blomkamp’s staging of action sequences remains his strongest asset, as flashy but functional camera work enhances the chaotic tension of urban shoot-outs and high-speed space battles without ever straying into incoherence. Similarly, his understanding of the limitations of CG, as well as its great potential, keeps every element of the world’s design in line with reality; creating believable space ships and robots for our hero to shoot at. In an effort to be more than a just big, dumb action movie, Elysium wears its heart on its sleeve and has a greater purpose than just showing pretty machines blowing up.
Blomkamp’s vision of the future and its criticism of the increasing segregation between the 1% and the 99% in the present day is potent and ripe for exploration. Sadly, Blomkamp not only gives himself little time to explore the status quo of this grim future, he even hi-jacks the film’s basic thematic resonance with a trite, saccharine sub-plot about the dreams of young Max to one earn himself a ticket to Elysium. The fact that the social concentration camp Max inhabits makes this dream an impossibility is ignored (or taken as a given not worth exploring) in favour of repetitive flashbacks to his childhood in an orphanage, where kindly nuns walk little Max through meandering pep-talks in stilted Spanish, contributing nothing of value to a film that would benefit greatly from the sort of emotional austerity that Ridley Scott applied so well to his finest efforts. The cloth-eared characterisation in the script is thrown into even greater relief by the cartoonish, de facto megalomania of Jodie Foster’s Delacourt, which eclipses the culpability of the laid-back, wine-sipping Elysian citizens in their totalitarian segregation of the have-nots beneath them. Delacourt’s flagrant contempt for the great unwashed is one of her two distinguishing features and derails the moral indignation at the heart of Blomkamp’s concept. This might just be forgivable if the single-minded critique of the American military industrial complex were audible over the smacking and squelching sounds of Jodie Foster tearing into chunks of juicy prime-rib scenery.
It is tempting to say that Elysium was crippled by decisions taken out of Blomkamp’s hands, rife as it is with the sort of over-simplification and white-washing synonymous with studio interference. But it is clear that Blomkamp has been blinded by brash, sentimental sincerity since early script development and it is well known that all of his casting choices for his hero were white actors. The other casting choices almost go out of their way to high-light the global, multi-cultural milieu that the film must logically inhabit but the leading man is a white swan amongst mottled ducks. That all of Blomkamp’s choices for his lead actor were white, non-latinos (namely Ninja from Die Antwoort and Eminem) is extra-textual but the spectacle of a white man (even an orphan raised in the slums) who is destined to save the world jars with the world that Blomkamp has set-out to create and plays-out a white saviour fantasy that is as inadvertently supportive of the status quo as it is determined to alter it.
Worse still is Elysium’s abandonment of the conceit at its heart in favour of a simplistic showdown between Max and Delacourt’s feral mercenary henchman, Krueger (Sharlto Copley, stealing the show, leaving mushy scraps of scenery in his wake). Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters of recent years, Elysium could do with being twenty minutes longer, allowing the audience and the filmmakers time to explore the physical manifestations of the social divide that humanity has created for itself and bask in the splendid landscapes and mecha-cathedrals created by production designer Philip Ivey and the tireless minions of Image Engine. Elysium might have benefited from 3D photography, if simply to have a catchy visual methodology for exploring the dystopia we can all look forward to. With the tools of 3D Blomkamp might have found a compelling reason to linger on the finer elements of future Earth and dispel the nugatory feeling of a blockbuster confined by a poorly delineated ticking-clock structure.
To call Elysium a disappointment is not to ignore its strengths as a visually distinct action spectacle, filled with deft, engaging set pieces. But since rocketing up the ladder with District 9 Blomkamp has sold himself as a more intelligent storyteller than Elysium suggests. District 9 was no paragon of subtlety but it hearkened back to the most highly regarded traditions of science fiction storytelling whilst also being innovative, pop-corn-friendly and quick on its feet. It directly opposed what we have come to expect from Hollywood’s empty blockbuster sci-fi adventures and, as such, the prospect of Blomkamp operating with a bigger budget and even bigger ideas was either going to lead to a spectacular triumph or a spectacular failure. As a spectacular failure, not just by the standard set by Blomkamp’s debut but also by the standards of good science fiction, Elysium is my pick for 2013’s greatest disappointment (hence The Wooden Spoon). Despite the strengths of its action sequences and investment in cutting-edge visual design, Elysium is the kind of bloated yet simplistic action junk food that enterprising filmmakers like Blomkamp were supposed to provide an alternative to, and appeals neither to audiences seeking mindless distraction nor to the more critical fan boys who crave a little mental stimulation in between explosions.
Elysium premiered on 5th September 2013 in China, where it bagged $25,690,000 of its $286,140,700 Worldwide total. (Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers).