Elysium ★★★½

I will preface this review by saying that I'm a huge fan of Neill Blomkamp's vision for science fiction, and I have every confidence that he will make one of the genre's best films. If District 9 can't be said to have already done that, then it came very close. It was a film with an intriguing and completely original premise, a complex protagonist that defied archetypes, and staggeringly convincing visual effects. Elysium has only one of these qualities, and it's easy to guess which.

Upon leaving the theatre, I had trouble reconciling a number of ideas in my head, trying to come to terms with why I thoroughly enjoyed and yet was utterly disappointed in this film. I was discussing the inventiveness of Blomkamp with a fellow filmgoer Adam Schoales, who reminded me that there's actually not much invention going on for the basis of the plot. It's a "99% vs 1%" or "one man against the world" classist underdog story that we've seen play out time and time again. And he's right, it's not very original. But that's not what I was having trouble reconciling. Because I believe that even the simplest and most well-trod premises can still bring something new to the table.

No, it's the characters and motivations that I had the biggest trouble with. The protagonist has spent his life aspiring to visit the realm of the upper class, and has become a two-bit criminal in order to somehow accomplish his dream. Somewhere along the way he lost touch with a childhood friend who he shared a close bond with. But although this connection between characters is demonstrated time and time again throughout the film, I never once actually felt compelled to feel anything for it. Scenes with Max (Damon) and Frey (Braga), which should really be the anchor piece for this film, fall far short of that and the only real connection between characters in the entire film is actually between Max and Diego (Luna) his (arguably) best friend, albeit as a small supporting role.

Max's story, although seemingly straightforward plot-wise, is unclear. His motivations are selfish throughout the film, and in a moment of revelation in the final act become entirely selfless - that's a character arc that's played out successfully in many different vehicles since the beginning of time. But Elysium spends no effort actually attempting to reinforce his decisions throughout the film, so we as an audience are left holding the bag wondering why this moment is supposed to have gravity. This is where his two-dimensional character eventually exposes itself and we see how unprepared the film is to deliver an emotional impact.

Delacourt (Foster) and Carlyle (Fichtner) are convincingly unwavering in their diabolical corruption throughout the film, but there was a deliberate choice made to give them a forced, almost robotic accent that didn't do their performances any favours. On the flipside, the more literal antagonist, Sharlto Copely gives easily the best performance of the entire film as the menacing Kruger. Equal parts stalking monster and deranged sadist, his arc needs very little motivation beyond one clear goal, which could easily have made him a two-dimensional character as well. But it's Copely's dynamic portrayal that breathes life and a very real threat into this film.

Overall, the film stands as another brave vision for a director that I'm confident will continue to make impressive films. He excels in the realm of grounded-in-reality visuals that are so convincing it's difficult to tell where reality stops and the virtual begins. He's got an ingenuity at developing technologies and weapons that are innovative, creative and (above all) hauntingly believable. Elysium disappoints me because it doesn't live up to the type of film I am excited to see Blomkamp make, but it's an entertaining and visually impressive stopover on the route to getting there.