Neill Blomkamp makes ugly movies set in ugly worlds filled with awful people. He presents ham-fisted sci-fi morality plays about hapless protagonists. He always includes at least one utterly nasty scene with someone vomiting*, and he employs an epileptic camera to boot. These are not all automatically negatives, but I must admit I find nothing about this combination of artistic trademarks particularly entertaining. I did enjoy Elysium quite a bit better than District 9, but that really isn’t saying much considering that I straight-up hated District 9.
Elysium’s blessing and curse is that Blomkamp downshifts slightly on the bile. He still skewers humanity with all the subtlety of a Tyler Perry joint, but there are occasional moments where you invest in some characters. However, he seems confused about exactly how to graft some hopefulness onto his “people suck” schtick, and so the overall narrative winds up somewhat incoherent. But at least I can understand what’s happening in the action sequences despite the shaky cam. They’re all actually really well-staged.
Judging from interviews with Matt Damon about his Bourne movies, the actor clearly finds grim, blank action roles like this one interesting. Elysium’s Max De Costa is beaten down by life, but remains determined to keep going. And I have no complaints about Damon’s performance as Max; he is solidly effective in the role. At the same time, I can’t help but think that they should have cast a Latino actor. It certainly would’ve added some extra oomph to the immigration parable with a non-white hero. Plus, almost all of the secondary Earth-bound characters were cast as people of color.
I tried to go back to the coverage from Elysium’s release to see if there was any mention of originally considering anyone other than Damon, and all I found out was that Blomkamp originally considered both Eminem and another, lesser-known white rapper for role. Ultimately, Damon was cast just for his higher profile and his nice-guy accessibility. That strikes me as weird because I would’ve guessed that the character was originally written as Latino and then changed to accommodate Damon. Seems like a missed opportunity.
And now for a discussion of the ending with SPOILERS.
The movie doesn’t earn the swelling, victorious score in its final scenes. The ending is filmed with a note of finality that seems awfully premature to me. We see the healing technology from the Elysium space station begin to be distributed to the inhabitants of Earth, but is that really enough to save such a damaged world?
The medical pods seem to work like magic, but ostensibly we’re dealing with science, and I’m assuming that there’s a finite amount of resources available to make them work or otherwise it wouldn’t have been necessary for the rich folk to hoard them up in space. So how many needy people will actually get access to them before they start to break down or run out of gas or whatever? What was even really accomplished? One little girl who was emotionally significant to Max gets her leukemia erased, and I suppose that’s all that really mattered to him because he’s portrayed as a man of limited vision. That would be fine if the film didn’t seem intent on selling Max as a messianic savior of all the downtrodden peoples everywhere.
Like I said before, incoherent.
* I cannot stress enough how much I hate vomit scenes. Every single one I’ve ever seen is burned on my brain, and if no one ever filmed one again, I’d be happy lady.