Why ‘Elysium’ falls short

Matt Damon is good in 'Elysium' ... but then again, when isn't he?

Matt Damon is good in ‘Elysium’ … but then again, when isn’t he?

In the fall of 2009, a buddy and I went to see District 9. I’m a big movie fan who pretty much refuses to read reviews or watch trailers much beyond the basic info for fear of dreaded spoilers, and my friend was and is an occasional movie watcher who had read about District 9 and was intrigued.

When we left the theater, I commented that seeing District 9 was like watching The Matrix for the first time. You had these interesting, layered works of art dominated by theme – in The Matrix it’s the influence of technology and lack of distinction between the real and virtual worlds, in District 9 apartheid and racism in general – and taking place in unique visual worlds.

My friend laughed. He responded that he was thinking the same thing, only about the original Star Wars. He felt like he’d just been blown away, completely unprepared for what he had witnessed on screen. For him, there was even a child-like joy to the discovery.

That, ladies and gentleman, is a badass movie. When you rock two educated filmgoers who have seen it all before, you’ve more than done your job.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is also why Elysium was such a disappointment. Because it does nothing of the sort.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll watch anything writer/director Neill Blomkamp throws up on screen. Visually, Elysium is stimulating, and, at times, gorgeous. Matt Damon’s the lead, and you can rarely go wrong with him, while Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley deliver riveting supporting performances.

But it all comes back to the story. And the story of Elysium is the story of many, many sci-fi books, shows and movies. The powerful people have the good stuff, they aren’t allowing the masses anywhere near it and there’s tension. Whereas District 9 is drenched in apartheid, with no way to separate or distinguish the plot, theme, visuals and characterizations outside of the rigorous caste system the movie establishes, Elysium is really an action movie where the battle between the powerful and the powerless is just the set-up.

Does that make Elysium a bad movie? No, not at all. It’s a perfect serviceable sci-fi/action flick with some nice moments. And it would have made a great first movie for Blomkamp, with District 9 as his powerful, career-making follow-up (not to get too Wachowski-heavy, but their career path started with the intense, completely non-techy indy flick Bound before they Matrix-ed the planet).

Elysium just feels like a let-down, a “what could have been” in the wake of the “holy f*&%ing s&*%” that District 9 was. A missed opportunity.

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