Review: ‘Elysium’ offers a sci-fi fairy tale about the haves and the have nots

Elysium screenshot 20
Matt Damon stars in Neil Blomkamp's follow up to 'District 9,' 'Elysium'

If you’ve been to the movies this year, then you probably know that the future doesn’t look so bright for the Earth. The planet is nearly decimated in Oblivion and After Earth, hordes of zombies attack in World War Z, and even the rapture/Armageddon happens in This Is The End. We’ve always been fascinated with what comes next – or more to the point what can we do about it – and writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium is no different. Blomkamp doesn’t consider his film to be far flung science fiction though; it’s the disparate class struggle between the 1-percent and the 99-percent that explains why Elysium exists in the first place.

Blomkamp’s film is visually stunning, which should come as no surprise to anyone that has seen District 9.

Elysium is presented without any epic story twists or turns that normally accompany sci-fi films that have a moral to tell. Instead, what you see is what you get: the extremely rich have decided to leave the Earth behind in favor of Elysium, a glittering Stanford Torus of wealth and opulence orbiting the planet. This ring-shaped enclave boasts its own atmosphere, and is lined with marble swimming pools, sprawling mansions, and lush gardens. It’s an idyllic utopia, fittingly named after the fabled fields in Greek mythology where gods would send heroes after death. But beyond the good looks and gleaming surfaces lies yet another perk: eternal life. Each home on Elysium is equipped with a medical pod that strips away disease, injury, and even age, leaving the user perpetually young and healthy. On the flip side of the coin is the human trash pile that Earth has become. 

Remember the alien ghettos from District 9? That’s what the entire planet looks like in Elysium. The film is set in 2154, and Blomkamp filmed in desolate areas on the outskirts of Mexico City to recreate the decaying Los Angeles of the future, where the landscape is littered with the husks of buildings, vehicles, and dwellings. It’s a testament to the disposable lifestyle of today, when you need something new you simply toss out the old.

Elysium screenshot 10
Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley also star in Blomkamp’s sci-fi action flick about the haves and have nots of tomorrow.

Humanity lives under the thumb of robotic sentries who patrol the surface, while public-facing government agents are automatons who offer pills when citizens seem upset. Amidst this squalor ex-con Max (Matt Damon) ekes out an existence, but his life is going nowhere. Through flashbacks, we learn that Max was an orphan who befriended a young girl named Frey (Alice Braga), and the two of them dreamed of the sky after reading a children’s book about how amazing Elysium is. He promises that one day he will take her there. Back in 2154 Max and Frey have lost touch, although an encounter with a robot drone leaves Max with a broken wrist in the hospital where she works as a nurse. That about lines up the football for the rest of the film, which unfolds predictably.

…there is some delicious eye candy here, but nothing to feed your brain.

After accidentally receiving a lethal dose of radiation at work Max is left with only five days to live, prompting him to visit his old boss Spider (Wagner Moura), the leader of a criminal organization involved in everything from stealing cars to smuggling people aboard Elysium. Along with the eternal beauty Elysium exudes, it also serves as a beacon to all of the sick, injured, and dying on Earth. Spider’s outfit has a method of tricking the Elysium medical pods into thinking anyone is a citizen, and he has the means to get them off Earth, as well as equipping people with powerful and dangerous exoskeletons.

The hardline Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), however, has taken a strong stance against those seeking to invade her perfect world and sully it with the Earth’s dirt and grime, and she uses mercenaries like the rabid Kruger (Sharlto Copley) on the surface to keep them out. Max returns to Frey after being injured by Kruger’s men, and discovers that her daughter has leukemia. By now, you should be able to clearly see where things are going. That doesn’t make the scenic ride any less enjoyable, but there are several major bumps along the way.

Damon is completely serviceable as Max, but as his humanity slips away over the course of the film, turning him into a half-man, half-exoskeleton, you find yourself wondering why he feels so cold and emotionless. Jodie Foster feels like stunt casting here, and she doesn’t bring anything to the table besides a French accent. Sharlto Copley is satisfying as Kruger, and the scenes where he tangles with Max are among the best in the film. The real standout amongst the cast is Wagner Moura, who was excellent in Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2, and his Spider steps beyond the boundaries of what’s on the page.

Blomkamp’s film is visually stunning, which should come as no surprise to anyone that has seen District 9. He has a deft hand for blending technology and mankind together, with an emphasis on fantastic weaponry. However, despite the visuals and the deft storytelling, Elysium is built on a ham-fisted, clumsy script. For instance, when Frey is arguing with one a doctor about care for her daughter, he spouts “We’re not Elysium!” A fact she is probably already more than aware of. Also, the defense of Elysium is left to Delacourt, who uses ground elements to defend the wheel in the sky. With all of the world’s wealth represented on this thing, wouldn’t they have their own defense mechanisms? Turrets? Automated fighters? Simply relying on someone on the planet to snap off a few surface to air missiles seems ridiculous.

Elysium screenshot 13
Using a powerful exoskeleton, Damon attempts to fight his way off the ruins of Earth.

Blomkamp likes to emphasize the fact that he operates outside of the Hollywood system, but for all intents and purposes, this feels exactly like a Hollywood film. There is nothing inherent in either the storytelling, nor the director’s vision that makes you think “Wow, there’s no way Hollywood would have made this film.”

Conclusion

Blomkamp remains a director to watch, and Elysium is enjoyable at times. But the story feels dumbed down, like the children’s book that Max and Frey are reading at the beginning of the film. While the script seeks to convey a messianic message on the level of the conclusion of The Matrix trilogy, you feel every bump of the story along the way as it drives frantically towards the end. In short, there is some delicious eye candy here, but nothing to feed your brain.

(Images and video © Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved.)

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