Neill Blomkamp had a good story in mind when he was brewing up Elysium. Not a particularly new or unique story — the utopia/wasteland dichotomy, the race-to-paradise agenda are themes that have, historically, made themselves quite cozy in science fiction films and literature. But classic doesn’t mean overdone. Familiar doesn’t necessitate unoriginal. Elysium, from the get-go, had promise. It just doesn’t seem to have ever figured out what it wanted to be.
At the forefront of the picture, likely abetted by our preconceived notions of what a Blomkamp movie is destined to be, Elysium has the feel of a District 9. It’s gritty, naturalistic, earnest. Los Angeles circa 2154 even looks like South Africa (or at least Hollywood’s South Africa). But pretty quickly into the film, things take a turn. A turn for the funny. As Max, star Matt Damon — a hard-working laborer, ex-con, and former foster child who holds strong to his affection for fellow orphan and childhood companion Frey (Alice Braga) — trades rejoinders with violent robot cops, grows hot-headed in arguments with automated civil servants, and laments no shortage of brushes with the criminal underbelly of Earth’s future. Now, we’re in Total Recall territory. Pulp sci-fi. The fun stuff.
But the evolution does not halt there. As Damon’s quest to escape the treacheries of his decaying city and ascend to the promised land in the sky (literally, it’s a city on a space station) Elysium, we shift gears once more toward summer blockbuster. Steadily escalating stakes, run-ins with nameless lackeys, that “one last shot” at the big victory, it’s all the stuff of the genre’s biggest. Everything from Star Wars to Pacific Rim. And when Elysium reaches this plateau, with its central villain — a rogue officer named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) — spouting the usual slew of cliché one liners, we might admittedly long for the naturalism of the film’s first act, or the kooky tone of its second. But this chapter is when the excitement sets in: we’re still having fun, just for different reasons.
Disjointed no doubt, Elysium does suffer a bit from its identity crisis. Never quite sure how exactly to connect with the picture, we’re kept from doing so unabashedly. But again, the victory of this film is its joyfulness — a surprising feat for the director who brought us the bleak-as-all-hell District 9. As a man trying to save his own life, Damon isn’t a martyr but an adventurer. L.A. isn’t an oppressed wasteland, but a jungle. And Elysium? A tyrannical regime, sure, but a Kubrickian dream. With so much weight so ostensibly inherent in each of the story’s facets, we’re almost relieved to see how gleefully the movie is willing to play with them. So even when we say goodbye to some of the movie’s gravity, its grit, its originality, we welcome in the fun. With open arms.