Critics praise Neill Blomkamp's ambition, but not his lack of subtlety
Critics are praising Matt Damon's "Elysium" for its ambition, even as some reviewers gripe that its sharper insights are overwhelmed by a few too many explosions.
The science-fiction thriller involves an impoverished man's struggles to break into a luxurious spaceship where a group of one-percenters bliss out. Any allusions to Occupy Wall Street are purely unintentional, the filmmakers claim.
"Elysium" co-stars Jodie Foster and marks Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to "District 9." It hits theaters Friday, armed with respectable, if mostly earthbound, reviews from critics. "Elysium" currently holds a 67 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In TheWrap, Alonso Duralde said Blomkamp's film lacks subtlety, but hailed the director's staging of the movie's action setpieces.
"Blomkamp is a master of creating action out of a grimy, quotidian kind of next-gen hi-tech, but when it comes to metaphors, he prefers the sledgehammer," Duralde wrote.
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis agreed that Blomkamp's allegory could have employed a lighter touch. However, she praised Damon for grounding the film and for making the audience feel for his character's plight. It's the kind of charisma that only a favored few film stars enjoy, she wrote.
"Mr. Damon has become the greatest utility player in movies: No one can better vault across rooftops and in and out of genres and make you care greatly if he falls," Dargis wrote. "He's so homespun that he could have sprung wholly formed from a corn silo (he shares James Stewart's extraordinary likability if not his later-life, postwar neurotic edge). But it's the ease and sincerity with which Mr. Damon conveys moral decency – so that it feels as if it originates from deep within rather than from, say, God or country – that helps make him a strikingly contemporary ideal of what used to be regularly called the American character."
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post praised Blomkamp for finding new avenues to explore in a genre that has been oft-exploited by Hollywood — though she did complain that his social commentary was a little too on-the-nose.
"A high-low tension runs through 'Elysium,' not only in the narrative itself, but in Blomkamp's own cinematic language, which can be lofty one moment and gleefully pulpy the next," Hornaday wrote. "If that juxtaposition isn't quite as bracing as it was in 'District 9,' Blomkamp is still clearly on his own mission: to bring new intelligence and even principles to bear on a genre too often dominated by banal cyborgs and recycled plots."
Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer gave "Elysium" points for asking its audience to think instead of just pummeling moviegoers with mindless spectacle.
"As summer movie sci-fi extravaganzas go, 'Elysium' is easily the best thing out there right now," Rea wrote. "And the bleakest, too."
Not everyone was a fan.
New York magazine's David Edelstein found the performances of the leads a bit off — writing that Damon lacked the mercenary air his part required and ranking Foster's villainess among her worst offerings.
"[Foster's] accent is either English, South African, or Martian – it's hard to tell, since it's different in every scene – and she moves more stiffly than the robots," Edelstein wrote. "With 'Elysium,' Foster joins the ranks of outspoken liberals (hello, Tim Robbins) who can't manage to play their political opposites without turning themselves into caricatures."
Hollywood wrote Blomkamp a blank check after the success of "District 9," but Slate's Dana Steven's implied he never should have cashed it. The film's aspirations to be something weightier are eschewed in favor of numbing action sequences, she wrote.
"'Elysium' has some very basic structural and story problems: The last half is essentially one barely interrupted chase, leaving no breathing time for either the characters or audience, and the incoherent, absurdly simplistic ending-which I should probably discuss in a second location, so as not to spoil-would be an insult to the intelligence of an audience of llamas," Stevens wrote.