It's been a tough summer at the movies. For the blockbuster-hungry, anyway. Star Trek Into Darkness was sleek but ultimately pretty chilly. After Earth was strange and terrible junk, while Man of Steel sucked all the life out of Superman and senselessly killed hundreds of thousands of people in the process. Pacific Rim proved too silly and top-heavy, and of course in some ways we will never fully recover from The Lone Ranger. I suppose World War Z had its moments, but beyond that and the more exciting parts of Star Trek, this summer has been a bust for big-ticket movies. Which is why, as someone who enjoys, or used to enjoy, summer spectaculars, I was holding out so much hope for Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. I had good reason to!
Four years ago, Blomkamp, then just 29 years old, stormed onto the scene with the scrappy but elegant, thrilling, moving sci-fi drama District 9, an allegorical look at the racial politics of Blomkamp's native South Africa and, at the film's biggest moments, the broader world. Blomkamp's visual style was kinetic, busy, but crisp, and assured. His metaphors were loud enough to feel urgent, but didn't bonk us over the head. District 9 is smart, inventive filmmaking, the kind of movie that announces the arrival of a Next Big Thing. Elysium is Blomkamp's long-awaited follow up, his first taste of big studio backing and budget, working with top-shelf movie stars — Matt Damon and Jodie Foster — and grafting his soulful, searching sensibility onto a summer tentpole frame. Unfortunately, somewhere in the process the unique perspective and flair that made District 9 such an original wonder was lost, and out came the Elysium which arrives in theaters on Friday. Loud, clunky, and disappointingly shallow, Blomkamp didn't rock the studio system so much as it seemingly rocked him.
What's most jarring, and dismaying, about Elysium — about a ruined and impoverished 22nd century Earth and the gleaming space arcology where all the rich people live — is how many tired action movie cliches Blomkamp traffics in. There are many, far too many, Matrix-esque slo-mo shots, so predictable and hacky by now that parts of Elysium look no more sophisticated than a Resident Evil movie. He also enlists his District 9 star Sharlto Copley to play the main bad guy (well, he's doing Jodie Foster's bidding, at first), a comically evil dude with a one-liner for everything. Of course a bit of humor is always welcome in these sorts of movies, especially these days when everything is so serious, but Copley's character is cartoonish, he makes little sense amid the otherwise textured surroundings that Blomkamp has created.
Yes, there are some good things to be said about Elysium. Blomkamp establishes his world well, giving us a Los Angeles gone to seed but still lurching along. Though showing us squalid, depressing things, the cinematography is often lovely; the camera wanders and hovers and pauses on particular moments of grace or despair. And Damon, as a lowly factory worker with a rap sheet longing in vain for the serene paradise of Elysium, is plenty likable as always, playing weary and downtrodden with a tin shimmer of gallows humor. I only wish his character had been given some dimension and shading — as is he's merely a binary system of two basic motivations.
So, yeah, back to the bad. In addition to the corny tricks and gimmicks that Blomkamp uses to gild his cluttered, ultra-violent (several people gorily explode in the movie) action sequences, Elysium suffers from a dearth of thoughtfulness. The allegory he's working with here is about immigration and health care, and while those are indeed pressing topics ripe for spinning into dark and insisting fables, here the messaging is too literal and blunt. A ship full of illegals lands on (in?) Elysium and they flee like immigrants across the U.S./Mexico border, only to be brutally and inhumanely captured. Basic healthcare is hardly available on Earth, whereas on Elysium they have machines that can cure anything, essentially granting immortality. It makes sense that Blomkamp would feel the need to delocalize his themes for his first big studio movie, but he's made them too broad, too general. He wields them clumsily and arrives at too many simple conclusions. (Undocumented immigrants are people too, everyone should have healthcare.) It's admirable that Blomkamp wants to say something amidst all the crunching and booming, but his themes feel distressingly under-considered this time. Where District 9 soared with genuinely stirring sadness and triumph, Elysium dully editorializes in between by-the-numbers action scenes.
Elysium is a disappointment. A big one, in fact. Things start going south the minute Jodie Foster opens her mouth and a bizarre and unplaceable accent comes tumbling out — my viewing partner and I arrived at Swiss, but Swiss of the future — and only rarely does the film come even remotely close to the transcendence of Blomkamp's earlier work. But the strength of that first film is enough to convince me that Elysium is just a sophomore stumble, that Blomkamp, now that he's got his big dumb studio action picture out of his system, can return to the intelligence and stylistic economy that put him on the map in the first place. Like nearly everything else in this summer of broken blockbusters, let's write this one off and look, with some uneasy expectation, toward whatever is coming next.