In an otherwise lackluster movie season, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 followup, Elysium, has long looked like our best bet for smart summer fare. But, alas, it's starting to look like those high expectations might be its undoing.
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The film, which opens August 9, has a lot resting on its shoulders. The burden is two-pronged. First, the movie has to prove that Blomkamp, the young South African director whose smart, elegant, bracing District 9 stormed the box office in 2009 and scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, isn't a one-hit wonder. Second? The movie has to make money for its studio Sony, which is still reeling from recent flops like After Earth and White House Down.
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Elysium was originally supposed to open in the spring, Brooks Barnes of the New York Times reported earlier this week, but Sony moved the release date to August, in an attempt to mimic District 9's late-summer success. Which ultimately meant that Elysium would have to follow, and make up for, the failures of earlier Sony releases. "The move inadvertently saddled 'Elysium' with a huge amount of pressure," Barnes wrote. "Having already endured two summer flops, Sony now urgently needs a big live-action hit, but Hollywood is also carefully watching the film."
Hollywood isn't just carefully watching the film to see if it breaks a string of box office disasters. It's also waiting to see whether Blomkamp can do brilliant things when granted a starry cast and a bigger budget. Back in 2009, District 9—buoyed by the Peter Jackson seal of approval and an ingenious marketing campaign—became what is essentially the film industry's golden goose: a box office success that also was an artistic marvel. The film—which told the apartheid metaphor-laden story of aliens stranded in Johannesburg—was classic sci-fi with a social conscience.
Elysium clearly has a similarly thoughtful aim, telling the story of an Earth which has become a slum while the haves move to a pristine space station. (Sean Smith at Entertainment Weekly, which has given the film a lot of play, including a recent cover story, reported on how the film's premise arose from Blomkamp's own experiences.) But the inevitable District 9 comparisons seem to be working against it in early reviews, even in the case of an ultimately positive assessment. Variety's Scott Foundas liked the film, and predicted a good box office, but said that the film was, in comparison to District 9, a "less dazzling but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity." Foundas was careful to add that "even working within a more conventional framework, Blomkamp again proves to be a superb storyteller."
In the case of The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy, the District 9 comparison is more damning. "Like Neill Blomkamp's out-of-nowhere sci-fi triumph with District 9 four years back, this one puts rugged action and convincing visual effects at the service of a sociologically-pointed haves-and-have-nots storyline, but when the air goes out of this balloon, it goes fast. " He later contends: "All the interest and good will built up by the sharply conceived preliminaries is washed away in a succession of scenes that feel crushingly routine and generic, not to mention guided by ideological urges."
Variety's review isn't exactly the rave we were hoping for, but THR's isn't a complete pan, either. So we're still holding out hope for the film, but it may be time to start realistically managing those expectations. At this point it's probably too much to count on Elysium being the revelatory savior of the summer we want it to be. Maybe we should just settle for a movie that's better than Man of Steel, or Lone Ranger, or World War Z, or Pacific Rim. That's not asking too much, is it?