Written by Bryan Zarpentine
The recently released Elysium is writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s unrelated follow up to District 9. Elysium blurs the line between sci-fi action thriller and political drama, as it depicts a futuristic dystopian society. While there’s enough action and excitement to keep audiences entertained, there are few, if any, characters that are like-able or relatable, and there is a failure on Blomkamp’s part to find a suitable balance among the elements of science fiction, politics, and humanity, which will ultimately leave audiences unsatisfied.
The first thing that Blomkamp does is establishes a distinction between two different civilizations. First, there is the dystopia that exists on Earth, which is defined by disease, pollution, and over population. There are slum-like conditions, excessive poverty, and inadequate healthcare. Technologically advanced robots act as police, ensuring that order is maintained, although crime appears rampant, with many either resorting to crime to offset poverty, or taking a desperate risk by trying to illegally emigrate to Elysium.
Meanwhile, on the man-made “habitat” of Elysium that exists as a satellite floating through space adjacent to Earth, there exists extreme amounts of wealth and luxury, as well as technological advances that allow any disease to be cured within a matter of seconds, which means that the residents of Elysium never get sick or old. The special effects in the movie do wonders to portray a paradise of perfect happiness on Elysium, while also establishing that it’s a place meant only for the rich, and not for those left on Earth. However, the film goes into even more depth about life on Earth, specifically the city of Los Angeles in the year 2154, done so through the eyes of the protagonist Max, who is played by Matt Damon.
Max is a character with a rather checkered past, after growing up in what is assumed to be an orphanage run by nuns. Although he is lucky enough to be employed, he is also on parole because of a long history of getting into trouble and a laundry list of crimes, most notably stealing cars. Max resists a return to his former life as a criminal, but when he is exposed to radiation at work and given just five days to live, he must come crawling back to his former criminal boss, Spider, played by Wagner Moura. Spider is the ringleader of an operation that attempts to take passengers from Earth on illegal journeys to Elysium in order to have their health ailments resolved, and Max knows doing that is the only way for him to survive. However, the only way Spider will allow him on one of his ships is to hijack brain information from an Elysium billionaire that’s making a visit to Earth.
Meanwhile, the key character that the movie follows on Elysium is a high-ranking government official named Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster. Delacourt is responsible for the security on Elysium, and is tasked with stopping the ships filled with refugees from Earth that are trying to enter Elysium’s atmosphere. When the president of Elysium expresses his displeasure in the way that Delacourt chooses to keep Elysium safe from the poor and sick people from Earth that try to invade, she devises a plan to overthrow the president. Unknowingly, she dispatches the information necessary to overthrow the Elysium government to the same billionaire, John Carlyle, who Max is supposed to hijack in order to earn his ticket to Elysium from Spider.
These two plot lines come to a head during the hijacking mission, which is ultimately successful, as Max obtains the information available to overthrow Elysium and completely change the way that it functions. The scene in which all of this unfolds is the first true action sequence of the film, and while it doesn’t contain a lot of sci-fi special effects, it’s still enjoyable nonetheless. However, the way that the two plots come together is a logistical stretch and more complex than it needs to be. The ultimate point of the movie is for Max to journey to Elysium, and there is surely a more simple and efficient way to create that scenario. Watching the plot unfold for the first part of the movie is like taking a long walk for a small drink of water because once the first prolonged action sequence comes up, the movie is roughly half over.
A twist is thrown in following the hijacking scene, as all air space above Earth becomes restricted once Delacourt learns that the important information she needs to overthrow the government has been stolen. Max is now forced to find a different way to reach Elysium; meanwhile, he is also being hunted down by a violent renegade named Kruger, played by Sharito Copley, who is working on orders from Delacourt. Although it takes a while for the movie to get to this point, it does guarantee a dramatic and exciting finish, which audiences should enjoy. The caveat is that there are a few brief action sequences along the way that could have been extended for the benefit of the audience. The other issue is that we don’t see the sci-fi aspect of the film during action sequences until the very end, when the super strength of characters and futuristic weapons finally come into play.
An additional subplot involves Max and a long lost friend from his childhood named Frey, who is played by Alice Braga. The history between Max and Frey comes off as mysterious and intriguing, but it’s never fully explained what bonded them together as friends, aside from merely arriving at the orphanage at the same time. The movie has a few brief flashbacks, but goes into little detail about their past, yet we are led to believe that they were the best of friends as children. In any event, when they were kids, Max promised Frey that one day he would take them both to Elysium. Over time they lost touch with each other, but when Max needs to go to a hospital, he discovers that Frey has become a nurse. Max is eager to reconnect with her, but she resists on the basis that her life is complicated, not telling him that she has a young daughter who is terminally ill, and needs to get to Elysium in order to be saved. The movie makes the mistake of indicating early on that the relationship between Max and Frey is important and then ignoring it for long stretches of time, and never full developing it.
In theory, the relationship between Max and Frey is a great way to add a more human element to a sci-fi action movie, but Blomkamp fails to do so in so many respects. Although it would be cliché, there is no hint of romance between Max and Frey, which would almost be expected from two childhood friends who lose contact with one another, only to reconnect as adults. A romance between the two, even if it were manufactured out of thin air, would have made Max’s character more like-able and given the audience something more to root for. Even more disappointing is the fact that Max only seeks out Frey when he needs help, and not because he would like to help her or fulfill his promise of taking her to Elysium, something he doesn’t even do when he has firm plans to make the journey himself. It is only late in the movie that Max does anything for the benefit of Frey and her daughter, and by that point they have been absent for so long that it’s worthless to bring them back into the fold, and just have them be along for the ride. One of the biggest disappointments of Elysium is that a relationship that was highlighted in the beginning, is ultimately meaningless, despite so much potential to grab and hold the attention and sympathy of audiences.
The way Max handles his relationship with Frey highlights the biggest flaw in his character, which is his selfishness. Max doesn’t strive to get to Elysium because of injustice or politics, nor does he do it to help anybody else, even an old friend; he is merely doing it to save his own skin. He may play the lead role, and he may come off as a hero in the end, but Max is not a hero; he is, in fact, an anti-hero. Although he falls into unfortunate circumstances, he is self-centered and acts only in his own interest. He does not set out to change the current state of affairs; he only wishes to save himself, and in a movie about a dystopic future, this is disappointing to watch unfold.
Much has been made about the politics of the Elysium, but complaints about the symbolism have been blown out of proportion. The symbolism is obvious, with Elysium representing the rich, who have access to everything, and Earth representing the poor, who live in squalor and struggle just to survive. Clearly, the message the filmmaker is trying to deliver is that there is wide gap between the rich and poor, who are literally from different worlds in the movie. But beyond pointing out the obvious difference, and suggested injustice, between the rich and poor, specifically with regards to their access to health care, there isn’t a great political statement in Elysium. There are no riots and no call for revolution by the people of Earth against the people of Elysium, in part because the protagonist is such an anti-hero. Issues of immigration are touched on, but only briefly, and only as it relates to class. There are politics involved in the movie, but they are easily overshadowed by the action and sci-fi sequences of the movie, as well as one man’s selfish quest to prolong his life.
As for the actors, Damon performs admirably, and while he finishes strong, it’s far from his best portrayal of an action hero. Foster is able to pull off her audacious and power hungry character, but she is dry and uninspiring while doing so. Copley steals the spotlight for a short while with an enjoyable performance in a supporting role. Braga isn’t given much of an opportunity to show off her acting skills, but she does stand out while on screen.
As a whole, Elysium deserves of the mediocre rating of three stars. The movie starts off intriguing us with a futuristic world, but making the trip from Earth to Elysium takes too long to unfold. Furthermore, there is a profound lack of like-able characters, especially the protagonist. The movie is solid but unspectacular. It will entertain audiences briefly, but it won’t blow anyone away.
Genre: Action and Adventure
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura
Writers: Neill Blomkamp
Pros: Fairly high entertainment value; ends in a satisfying way; multi-layered story line; gets its political message across without alienating the audience.
Cons: Develops slowly; terrible development of what should be the movie’s marquee relationship; protagonist is an anti-hero not a hero; doesn’t live up to the hype created by District 9’s success.