Before I begin, I would like to state that yes, I know that director Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is very low in terms of chances at ANY Oscar nominations. Even if critic aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes has its score at 66%, that is not high enough to even be considered one of the average nominee's track record. What we have here is a blockbuster probably not in the truest sense of the word. While it costs a reported $90 million to make, it is as original of a property that something of that scale has been all summer long, which at very least is refreshing and makes Blomkamp at least a bold filmmaker, especially for a sci-fi film littered with profanity, gore, and a big budget. It may be the death of his blockbuster career, or just the start. Either way, it is an exciting proposition.
The reason that I chose to cover Elysium is because it is the long awaited follow-up to the highly acclaimed District 9, which came out of nowhere and with a production credit by Peter Jackson, landed itself four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. As I have covered before, it is unprecedented for sci-fi films to even land in that category. Still, the film's choice to tackle issues involving race, poverty, and understanding through an action-packed story showed a voice promising to come out with a great career.
Even though Elysium does justify quickly its lack of being a back-to-back nominee and therefore makes a review here seem pointless, it is more of a note that we should be welcoming Blomkamp to big leagues. With only two films under his belt, he has created a style and tone so distinct that over time, he is bound to make more fascinating projects that continue to blend genre with social commentary in clever new ways.
For the time being, we have Elysium, which pales largely in comparison to District 9. It also pales in terms of commentary, as the simple poor vs. rich theory is only a way to progress story. Still, Matt Damon as Max is an interesting character that through a series of events becomes the potential savior for Earth against Elysium: a vessel circulating Earth in which rich people inhabit and are easily able to cure their problems with advanced technology. With everyone sick and wanting to be cured, the story sacrifices deeper meaning in order to provide some of what makes Blomkamp at very least an interesting director stylistically.
The world that he has chosen to created to represent "Los Angeles" over 100 years in the future is a barren wasteland, almost like a western with advanced technology but little else (and no, not in the Wild Wild West way). With beautiful aerial shots of slums and a competent relationship between man and machine, this is a world that feels realized. Thankfully, it is where most of the story takes place, as Elysium in comparison is ripe with detail, but doesn't have much in the ways of atmosphere or importance.
Even with all of the problems with the story and the somewhat predictable and shoddy third act, this is an entertaining thrill ride with personality. Blomkamp shows us a universe that we haven't seen before and without delving too much into boring, complicated facts, gives us a spectacle full of shoot-outs, chase scenes, and some risque scenes involving violence and cursing. In a summer where we have seen almost clinically sterile sci-fi films like Oblivion that don't feel tangible, it is a relief for Elysium to exist. It reminds people why sci-fi could be fun.
The performances are fine. Damon is fine as the lead character, pretty much called upon to be a hero in shoot 'em up situations. It doesn't feel like he is trying anything necessarily new, but thanks to the universe, it feels fresh enough to keep momentum. The real star and wildcard of the project is Kruger (District 9 star Sharlto Copley), who is a hit man set to take out Max. He is rude, deeply accented, and is at times unexpectedly mean. Even if his story doesn't follow through as successfully as the protagonist's, he does play stock villain well, save for the finale in which he is reduced to spitting familiar catch phrases and only talking like a bad ass.
I know that I bag on Elysium a lot for not being a strong story. Please believe me however that I am now on board the Neill Blomkamp wagon. True, it largely has to do with making complex sci-fi narratives with characters that feel real and authentic. I also love the scenery and how it feels like there is more than meets the eye. This is a director that may have copped out easily with District 9 and a Best Picture nomination, but even if he doesn't make it back into the category, he has proven himself capable of being so much more and at very least being a voice for sci-fi: a genre that feels practically uninspired nowadays.
It is a question I have been puzzling since I heard the news. How did District 9 get into the Best Picture race? As excited as I am that the film wasn't only a financial success, but also an acclaimed one, it seemed out of the norm. Even the fact that it was put out by Tristar, which only has had four total Best Picture nominees, remains a mystery. My only bet is that producer Peter Jackson worked his magic and pulled some strings. Elysium doesn't have Jackson attached anywhere, so that should make things more interesting.
The truth is that I know that sci-fi doesn't play well at the Academy and this is not going to reverse anything. At very most, it will get some nods in Best Visual Effects or Best Editing: two fields that District 9 got nominated in. I don't think that the story or performances are worthy of any acclaim. It manages to be fun, but the only thing to get out of this film is a sense of style. What will a Blomkamp film feel like from here on out hopefully? The consistency suggests that it will at very least be challenging and that his triumphant entrance was not to be mocked.
It isn't entirely impossible for it to not get nominated. Even as problematic as many found Prometheus, it managed to sneak into Best Visual Effects. This stands just as much of a chance, provided that any of the forgettable summer blockbusters don't overshadow it in the process. I mostly say this because the universe feels almost too real and gritty. Even the interaction with robots feels commonplace. It is a western set in a dystopian science fiction story.
With all of this said, I will probably continue to support this young director with every project. However, it is doubtful that I will give a lenience and publish reviews on this blog. It is called The Oscar Buzz, and I rarely try to do stories that don't have some semblance of possibilities (though yes, the more I see from Jobs, the more I feel stupid about what I said). While my liking of the film as an entertaining story could come from bias of director and just because its competitors are unoriginal properties going 30 minutes longer, it was just a solid enough film to keep suspense and fun going from beginning to end.
Is Neill Blomkamp really capable of being a great director in the future? Was District 9 a fluke? When will Sharlto Copley do a role even remotely capable of being considered for an Oscar (he's awesome)?