2013 - 109 minutes
Written and directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura, Diego Luna, William Fichtner
“Elysium” is a gorgeous mess containing a grab bag of current socio-economic hot button issues (immigration, access to health care, government spying, technological reliance and many others) within a future setting where the chasm between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us has grown to literally cosmic proportions.
It’s the year 2154 and Earth has fallen into ruin – overpopulated and polluted it is one giant global slum. The privileged (probably the top 1-percent of the 1-percent) have escaped the hardship and live on Elysium, a spinning space station that looks a lot like the gated communities of today with pools, manicured lawns and large columned houses.
After stunning opening shots that establish both places, neither is explored with much depth. Is Elysium really a paradise? We never really see. And all we know of earth is the dusty expanse of Los Angeles that resembles a favela of Rio.
One inhabitant of this desolate wasteland is Max (Matt Damon), a buff and tattooed ex-con who is grateful for his job and has an everyman appeal. He works in a factory that makes the robot guards and police officers that protect Elysium and patrol the Earth - an obvious but interesting twist that the only way to legally eke out a living is to play a hand in the manufacturing of your mechanized oppressors.
While on the job, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, which a robotic aid helpfully informs him will kill him in 5 days. The only thing that can save him now are the miracle “Med Pods” on Elysium that can cure any ailment in a matter of seconds.
Desperate to get up there, Max visits crime lord and former associate Spider (Wagner Moura) who runs spacecrafts full of illegal immigrants up to Elysium. So desperate that he allows Spider to implant a device in his brain and screw a metal exoskeleton to his bones that gives him super strength in order to lead a mission to hack into some Elysium data.
This is the beginning of a string of plotlines and ideas that become unnecessarily confusing and elaborate, though every piece of the plot is painted in such broad strokes. The mark of their data theft is the CEO of Max’s company (William Fichtner), who just so happens to be in cahoots with the scheming Secretary of Defense Delacort (Jodie Foster) to overthrow the president and take power herself.
Fichtner and Foster are two of the most disappointing elements of the film. Both are typically reliable actors that I love – Fichtner was unquestionably the best thing about this year’s bland “Lone Ranger” film and Foster is Jodie Foster. Both of their performances are shockingly bad. Each are robotic by design, but Fichtner’s line readings are as if he’s actually an android. I’m pretty sure he’s not. Foster has a strange accent that comes and goes and sounds like a play on South African. Some horrible looping results in her mouth moving, but clearly not speaking the words we hear.
Adding to the plot that is more stuffed than the slums of writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s future world is Frey (Alice Braga) – a nurse who has a history with Max we see in brief flashbacks, and now has a terminally ill daughter. Somehow in a completely overcrowded city, Max runs into Frey at her hospital conveniently to set up a re-introduction Meet Cute. Braga brings some humanity to the story with Frey, but their backstory doesn’t add any real emotional heft to the hero’s journey.
Now that he has information that threatens Elysium and Delacourt, she makes Max a target, activating rogue government agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a reliable and brutal enforcer. Copley plays Kruger like a comic book monster, the kind of cloaked menace conspiracy theorists would love.
Continuing the feel of Blomkamp’s first (and infinitely better) film “District 9,” this world feels natural. Technology is a logical extension of things we have now and is isn’t all shiny. Space shuttles have dents and weapons show wear – everything is lived in. Blomkamp also isn’t afraid to show how brutal future weaponry could be. Unfortunately though, his main focus seems to be finding interesting ways to gruesomely blow somebody up. I counted four. One blowup victim is cured only so he can get blown up again a little later.
The visual effects (even the exploding bodies) are all extremely impressive, but instead of being in service to the narrative, they feel like a gritty polish on top of the obvious beats of the plot. The realistic look actually winds up being a detriment when what it is depicting is a repetitive and uninteresting human story. Everything is so on-the-nose there is no benefit to the high concept future exploration of today’s issues. One of my favorites was referring to immigrant ships attempting to get to Elysium as “undocumented.” Subtle.
I found myself studying the screen with almost every shot, wanting to find something that just wasn’t there despite all the noise. In the end when the music and images are manipulating us to get some warm fuzzy feelings, I found myself wondering – what exactly has been accomplished? It seems to me any gains made by Max and his harrowing journey to bring some equality for the have-nots could be quickly erased and rebooted.
© 2013 by Blake Crane