A man on the run, alone against the system (with maybe a little help from some friends) . . . With his emergence as a leading-man action star in 2002’s The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon proved (and continued to prove in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) his ability to carry a movie on the strength of his charisma, intense physicality, and powerful acting skills. This is what makes someone, in fact, an A-list movie star (and though acting chops are not always necessary, they certainly don’t hurt). Instead of continuing solely in the action genre, however, Damon has used his industry box-office standing to make less commercial fare, in which he is not always the lead, such as Syriana, The Brothers Grimm, The Departed (which won an Oscar for Best Picture), The Good Shepherd, The Informant!, Invictus, Green Zone, True Grit and Contagion, not to mention The Adjustment Bureau, which didn’t do great business, perhaps, but which still benefitted from Matt Damon’s (and Emily Blunt’s) star power and charm to do what business it did (the problems lay with the script). And now comes Elysium, the second feature film from South African director Neill Blomkamp (District 9), in which Damon plays a man on a determined mission, on the run from the forces of authority, not quite alone, perhaps, but forced to rely on his own reserves of strength to triumph over evil. And he does it well.
Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013)
The best thing, in fact, that can be said about Elysium, is that Matt Damon carries the film. Unfortunately, the worst thing about Elysium is also the fact that Matt Damon carries the film. The script and story both, sadly, verge on the inane and obvious. It’s 2154, and the elite of this planet, apparently great fans of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, have fled to a gated community in the sky, which floats like a second moon in near orbit (and which can be reached surprisingly quickly via a nifty shuttle system – my how technology will have improved in 140 years!). There, these rich and evil bastards (the worst one of whom – played by Jodie Foster – speaks, mais bien sûr, the language of pure evil . . . French!) deny the hoi polloi the finer things in life, including a health care system that would make Dr. McCoy green with envy.
One day, at work in a warehouse owned by malefic corporate titan John Carlyle (William Fichtner, good as always), Max (Damon) receives a lethal dose of radiation, and is given only days to live. Having spurned the violent life that once landed him in prison, Max is now forced to re-team up with the members of a cartel who can ferry him illegally up to Elysium for a cure. He just needs to do one more job for them, and that will pay his way. Not surprisingly, that job doesn’t go well, people die, and Max and those he cares for suffer. If you didn’t see that coming, then you haven’t seen very many action thrillers.
That said, the action sequences, themselves, are fairly well staged . . . until we get to Elysium, where Blomkamp’s fascination with close-up shots of extreme violence takes over. Before that, though, there’s plenty else that goes wrong with the movie, including plot and scientific inconsistencies that are jarring even with the suspension of disbelief we normally bring to sci-fi films. The worst mistake of all, however, is the casting of Sharlto Copley as Kruger, the film’s baddie. Though he was adequate to the task in the far superior District 9, here he almost ruins the film, as his (lack of) star power and impenetrable South African accent create a void where there should be an equal presence to match Damon’s.
Too bad. I wanted to like this.
See it if you like Matt Damon. Or go back and re-watch The Bourne Identity, instead.