This is a very well made film. Neill Blomkamp shows, as he did in District 9, his visual effects origins, building a realistic and gritty dystopian landscape. The Taurus ring that is Elysium hangs like a chalky oversized moon in the smog, an aspiration to the young Max as elusive and irresistible as the stars.
The acting is faultlessly underplayed, pretty much as you’d expect from Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Sharlto Copley is terrifyingly absurd, showing on the back of his everyman in District 9 he has a reach and distinctiveness that could put him up there with the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Alan Rickman, especially when it comes to tortured villains.
In short it has everything that a serious Hollywood Blockbuster should have.
And yet.. I cannot recommend this film.
I’ve seen poorly made films I would recommend, because despite their inadequacies I enjoyed them. I didn’t enjoy this. I didn’t hate it either. I didn’t really feel anything at all. I couldn’t even engage with it. The landscape, the people involved, everything told me this should work and I wanted to get stuck in. But trying to engage with this was like trying to get a grip on a smooth surface. I just kept sliding right back out.
The story was thin, though that in itself is not unusual for this kind of film. District 9, which this will inevitably be compared with, was a simple story. However there was in that a compelling human element, brought to life by the central character of Wikus, a bureaucratic little man, who should have lived a little life, thrust into being more than he wanted to be, fighting against everyone and everything, society, law, even his own body, unable to accept that the lines were being increasingly blurred and he could not re draw them.
Here we have Matt Damon doing Jason Bourne once again. He does it exceptionally well, a quiet unstated but deeply felt angst, but it gives us our first sense of something being missing. This emptiness pervades the entire film. The scene is set, beautifully, but by the end we are still waiting for the play to begin.
The story sets up twists, subtle, believable ones, and never fully explained, because bad guys don’t stop to explain their evil plans in real life, yet none come off as such, failing to break the linear, plodding feel of the narrative. And while I am not left with any questions or confusion, there is no depth or texture to what transpired.
This is a film by numbers. It ticked all the boxes, it delivered every expected feature, followed the rules, shot straight to the top of the class. But class isn’t real life. And it certainly isn’t the commercial world. Everything given I could have predicted within the first few minutes. The arthouse childhood memories set up the relationship which materialises later, but sadly we are never invested in them as a couple. The same could be said for every character and relationship, emphasis on the latter. The human element has been removed, ironically in an attempt to be as realistic as possible. But in trying to avoid those established tropes, now derided as cheesy, Blomkamp has ended up avoiding everything. If you take something out, you have to put something back in.
You can’t make a movie with only your brain. I know how that sounds. But this is not a intellectual pursuit. It is an emotional one. I’d rather cheesy special effects with heart and humour than this dry pretty nothing, I’d rather rules were torn up and boundaries were pushed, I’d rather you risked being a laughing stock, the next Ed Wood rather than settle for being the next Ed Who? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being laughed at, is being forgotten. This is one I will forget.