It’s been a rough summer for science fiction movies. Tom Cruise’s Oblivion was pretty much as generic as Tom Cruise movies go and not even the charms of Will Smith could propel the Jaden Smith vehicle, After Earth, out of the muck. Though, to be fair, Will Smith isn’t all that charming in the movie in the first place. See what happens when you play against type? The same is mostly true for action movies, whether or not they’re based on a comic book or graphic novel. Not that we could make or agree on this decision anyway, but I don’t think there’s really one movie that we could collectively call a decisive hit. It’s like we’re sitting around, looking at the landscape of movies and going, “This is it?” Now I’m not saying that Elysium breaks the mold or somehow brings us out of the rut of Meh Movies this summer, but it definitely fulfills its science-fictionly duties by providing a thought-provoking film about class and economic disparity in the near-distant future with a healthy dose of action to keep the audience on its toes.
The titular Elysium is a habitat orbiting Earth where the rich and powerful have retreated to in the wake of overpopulation, pollution, and the general disarray of a world gone absolutely out of control. On Elysium everything is perfect. It’s orderly, there’s no crime, plenty of education for your French-speaking children, and any disease can be cured through the use of a Med-Pod only accessible to a “citizen” of Elysium. On Earth where crime, poverty, and sickness abound, the goal of pretty much every person on the planet is to get a ticket to the orbital Heaven in the sky, legally or otherwise. Amongst the unwashed masses is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former criminal trying to get by until an unfortunate accident at Armadyne, his place of work, leaves him with five days to live. His only hope is to get up to Elysium. Aligning himself with a former associate, Spider (Wagner Moura), Max is provided with an exoskeleton to steal information from his former boss that puts him on the radar of Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her psychopath enforcer, Kruger (Sharlto Copley). The hunt is on for Max who now possesses information that could change everything for Elysium and Earth.
As far as the cast goes, writer/director Neill Blomkamp has assembled a fantastic array of actors. Matt Damon’s Max is easily identifiable and relatable given his circumstances. He plays the charming everyman very well, but at the same time still manages to show that Max isn’t a saint, especially when presented with a no-win situation. Jodie Foster is passable as Secretary Delacourt, but it feels like she’s trying too hard to be obviously evil. This could just be a shortcoming of the script, but there’s very little nuance to the character and it doesn’t help that Foster uses a very distracting formal accent when she delivers her lines. It doesn’t sound natural, which makes it hard to concentrate on what she’s saying when all you’re hearing is how she’s saying it. The supporting cast of Wagner Moura, Diego Luna, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, and Faran Tahir enrich the world of Elysium as well, but it’s really Sharlto Copley’s Kruger that steals the movie. As much as Damon is the everyman, Copley gets to go balls-to-the-wall nuts with his character. Every moment he’s on-screen, you’re unnerved by him, which is exactly how you should feel. He’s depraved, vicious, unsympathetic, and described as a psychopathic murderer and rapist. Yet you can’t take your eyes off him. I feel like there are probably a lot of pieces that didn’t make it into the movie of Copley just ad-libbing his way through scenes that involve him saying the most awful things you can imagine a person saying. Guess we’ll have to wait for the DVD/Blu-ray to be sure.
For only his second feature film, Blomkamp shows an impressive amount of growth from District 9 without losing sight of the message he wants to convey when provided with a marginally bigger budget and more special effects. His ability to quickly and effectively establish the state of Earth in 2154 and its contrast to Elysium is done with minimal exposition, for the most part, and almost entirely through visuals. Sweeping along the star-like station, we see the idyllically sanitary life of those rich enough to live on Elysium. Then we cut to the dirty, grimy landscape of Los Angeles where skyscrapers are now riddled with hut-like shelters and crowds of people fill just about every available space. While District 9 was a microcosmic tale of Apartheid with the alien Prawns replacing the black population of South Africa, Elysium goes bigger and posits where Earth is headed based on current trends in population, class, and economic shifts. This is how Blomkamp sees our future based on what’s currently happening. Are we all going to agree with his vision of the future? Probably not, but even his possible future isn’t without merit. He’s obviously thought about what Elysium is supposed to mean, whether or not he entirely gets that point across is subject to debate. One thing we can all agree on is that Blomkamp has passion for what he does and he shows that in how he crafts his films.
That doesn’t mean Blomkamp avoids the typical clichés and trappings of a sci-fi/action movie. If anything, the clichés are more obvious in Elysium, though it’s not like District 9 was devoid of them either. Peppered throughout the film are the profusely saccharine flashbacks to Max’s childhood where the message of the film is pretty much spelled out for us, just in case we didn’t get the idea. Max, like Wikus, is the anti-hero martyr. His turnaround comes very nearly towards the end and we all know it’s coming because that’s what this type of movie does. There’s also the annoyingly cute-as-a-button child who’s, wouldn’t ya know it, sick and needs access to a Med-Pod as well, providing the hero with his self-sacrificing motivation. And Jodie Foster isn’t even trying to hide the fact that she’s evil. Even if you understand why her character makes certain decisions, it doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s not even trying to be subtle. And I’d be remiss not to mention the whole “white guy saves everyone” trope, but it does beg the question of whether or not Max could have been played by an Hispanic actor instead of Matt Damon given how Blomkamp sees the future of Los Angeles. Not that Damon isn’t good in the role – he was very adamant about working with Blomkamp after seeing District 9 – but it’s still a question worth asking. Of course, then you get into issues of star-power and box office bankability, which pretty much says that without Damon and Foster this movie might not have been made at all.
In case it wasn’t that obvious, this is one of my more mixed reviews. I definitely liked Elysium, but it’s a movie that probably deserves a second viewing before I solidify where it stands on my scale of prolific sci-fi films. It took me two years to figure out I actually liked District 9, but I can say for sure that it won’t take me that long to figure out how I feel about Elysium. All I can truly say is that it’s worth a view because at least it’s trying to tell a story that will make you think about something other than “that thing go boom!” Will this propel Blomkamp into the upper echelons of Hollywood directors? Maybe, but I’d rather he stay below the radar and do the projects he’s passionate about rather than get sucked into the cadre of big budget movie directors who’re more interested in delivering what a studio and the generic audience wants. Blomkamp has vision and he has passion, both of which can be sacrificed when studios really dig their claws in to maintain the bottom line.
So, have you seen Elysium? Tell me what you think in the comments below.