DIRECTED BY: Neill Blomkamp
WRITTEN BY: Neill Blomkamp
STARRING: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
In the far off future (or perhaps closer than we think) humanity is divided into two classes: the poor, who live on a dirty, overpopulated Earth, and the wealthy, who live on an advanced space station called Elysium. Elysium is an absolute paradise, with no war, no hunger, and no sickness (mostly due to their med-pods, which can cure any sickness…somehow). Matt Damon plays Max, an ambitious man living on Earth who wants to one day make it to Elysium and make a better life for himself. Unfortunately he has to settle for life as a factory worker instead, and it doesn’t look like things are getting much better. Things change, though, when a workplace accident causes him be hit with a lethal dose of radiation, a dose that will kill him in five days’ time. This drives him to seek out the aid of Spider, a criminal hacker who has the means to get him to Elysium where their miracle machines can cure him in no time. Fitted with an old mechanical exoskeleton, Max sets out on a desperate journey to make it to Elysium before time runs out. Unfortunately, his way is blocked by a scheming Elysian politician, a smarmy business tycoon, and a merciless, maniacal mercenary named Kruger who’ll stop at nothing to get his target.
Matt Damon does a pretty fine job giving this movie the strong, emotionally driven center it needs. There’s a strange mixture of emotional vulnerability and aggressive, relentless drive that adds dimension to a character whose motivations are pretty simple. Sharlto Copley is great as Kruger, mostly because Copley just seems to be having so much fun in the role that his energy really comes through in his performance. I can’t understand half of what he’s saying, but that indecipherability lends itself to his terminator-esque “unstoppable monster” quality. I also really liked Wagner Moura as Spider. In any scene he was in, my attention was always drawn to his jerky, eccentric movements, and irregular speaking patterns. They almost cross the line into over-the-topness, but never quite do. Probably this cast’s weak link is Jodie Foster as Delacourt, our chief antagonist. She talks with this weird hybrid French/Southern accent all throughout the movie. She plays her character as about as flat and one-dimensional as possible, though to be fair her character wasn’t written to be anything but that. The rest of the actors play their parts well enough, though none of them really stand out in any way other than acting out their designated, arbitrary roles in the story.
Which brings me to my next point: this movie…doesn’t really make a lot of sense sometimes. Oh it begins promising enough, the premise is engaging, it sets up the positions of our characters pretty clearly and builds up a world that instantly resonates with the audience without the need of ponderous exposition taking up the first third. As the movie runs on, though, you begin to see the cracks in the scripts foundation, the shoddy workmanship of the world-building that sets up, but doesn’t sustain the audience’s belief that a world like this could possibly exist. We’re rarely given introspect into what motivates the characters to act and behave the way they do, they just do. Why does Delacourt want to be president when power in Elysium is a democratic process? Won’t they just vote her out once they discover she hacked herself into power? Why is Kruger, a character who’s defining character trait was loving his job of killing people a little too much, suddenly gain a motivation and scheme 2/3rds in. The motivation of our main character is pretty strong in the beginning: he doesn’t want to die, so he wants to go to Elysium to save his own life. His sudden change of heart to wanting to save everyone and sacrifice himself isn’t really communicated clearly, and mostly just relies on these cheesy, brightly lit flashbacks they show us over and over and over again of him being told he’s “meant for greatness”. What was even the point of the exo-skeleton other than to look cool? He doesn’t use it much for anything other than blocking swords and ripping a car door off once? Its purpose is vague and broadly sketched and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when thought about, much like a lot of this movie.
Probably the most divisive element of the film (from those I’ve talked to) is how little or how much it manages to beat the audience over the head with its heavy handed message. This kind of comes with the territory, seeing as the whole conceit of the movie is built around a topical, very volatile subject, namely the ridiculous class disparity between the rich and poor in modern society. The separation is illustrated literally through a physical separation with the rich in one place and the poor everywhere else. It isn’t even as much strictly about class disparity as it is specifically about American immigration policy and healthcare. The problem here is that this movie takes no effort to examine why these conditions exist, they just paint the two opposing classes in the post one-dimmensional, stereotypical way and say “because, that’s why!” See! The rich people have pool parties and speak French, which means they’re rich, see, SEE! And the poor people speak Spanish and try to break into a place where they can get healthcare and live in peace. We even have an adorable little girl with leukemia who doesn’t contribute to the story just to draw your sympathy. You know it wouldn’t have even been as bad if we could have at least seen more of the Elysians outside of them being snooty and hosting dinner parties. It’s a standard sci-fi actioneer posturing as social commentary without actually saying anything. I’m probably hyperbolizing just how blatant it is, but we get literally no reasons for the Elysians to not allow them to use their miracle health pods other than “we don’t want to” while they laugh and continue drinking their expensive champagne. It’s worse than broad, it’s outright exploitive.
Despite whatever weaknesses Blomkamp has as a writer, he does make one hell of a director. The look and feel of this movie is so wonderfully consistent when lesser sci-fi movies might just throw elements of other sci-fi films into a blender and hope they come out a little bit coherent. I still hate shaky cam, though, and no matter how skillfully implemented it is it still makes me feel like I’m not seeing a part of the action that I should. That isn’t to say this movie doesn’t look wonderful sometimes, because it does. However much I rag on today’s media’s the obsession with “gritty realism”, the production design and visual effects on display here lend the film an incredible sense of texture and visual cohesiveness (which isn’t the same thing as visual uniformity). As far as sci-fi genres are concerned, I guess you could categorize this movie’s look as possibly cyberpunk, or maybe just a used future. This films ability to defy usual genre categories is what really helps it stand out from the glut of sci-fi movies released this year. The integration of CG here is also just excellent, often blending so well I couldn’t tell what was real and what was computer generated.
Whatever grievances I had with Elysium, I was always at least entertained by it. It rolled along at a brisk enough pace (though that pace probably came at the expense of world and character development in some cases) and always kept my interest with loads of interesting new visuals to see and interesting new sounds to hear. How much you enjoy it will probably be based around how much you actually think about what’s going on, and while the problems became readily apparent later on I managed to make it through most of the run time without being too bothered by it. So as far as late summer movies go, it makes for a pretty good time, just don’t expect it to be the revolutionary topical sci-fi classic it was hyped up to be.