Movie Review: Elysium
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Reviewed: 2 September 2013
Watching the new film Elysium is like reading a promising student essay that begins with an engaging hook and a strong thesis, offering depth and care in the pages ahead. And then I start reading the essay, and it gets worse as it goes on. Leaps in logic are made; claims are not backed up by proper evidence. And by the end, the sloppy and incoherent mess on the last page does not even align with where the paper said it was going on its first page. Blomkamp has fallen from being Academy Award nominated for his last script, the brilliant District Nine to being clunky and nonsensical here. The result is a film with too many flaws to overcome.
Matt Damon plays Max, an assembly-line worker in futuristic Los Angeles 2154, a militarized shantytown with rampant crime and illness. The elite have abandoned the earth for the shining space station in the sky, the jewel named Elysium, known for its abundance of clean water, green spaces, and scanning medical pods that can cure any disease. After a terrible accident at work, Max decides to risk everything to travel to Elysium, even though it is heavily guarded by the ruling class, best personified by a terse Jodie Foster as Delacourt, a ruthless Defense Minister. There is a childhood friend that he encounters who has a terminally ill daughter as well as a government assassin Kruger (Sharlto Copley) who could help deliver him (and some important secrets uploaded to his head) to his destination. In essence, Max aligns himself with Los Angeles's criminal underworld in order to steal the secrets to earn his ticket to Elysium, though he barely understands what he will do when he arrives there.
Blomkamp missteps by not showing more than just passing glances at the Elysium world. At times, his script feels heavy-handed, overstating its connection to modern immigration practices or drone warfare. A shift in the final third of the film sidesteps the more interesting villain of ideas and offers a villain of muscle, and I had a difficult time understanding how one character could defeat the other. Copley's brute was difficult to understand in moments, and Foster's politician needed more to do (one of our finest actresses, she seems criminally underused). Matt Damon is fine, but the work here requires him to be so serious that it robs him of his charm and laughter, two of his strongest weapons. That can be okay in the Jason Bourne movies when watching the actor think and make decisions becomes compelling, but here, the character is not as compelling. His qualities consist mostly of being told he was special by a kindly Spanish-speaking nun when he was a child.
Most of the film's emotional moments fall flat, and the film presents an ending that seems designed to please the crowd but not the mind. If the earth is scarce of resources and rampant with pollution, will abandoning it completely be the best option? Does the ending suggest a sharing of resources that simply would not exist? The premise of Elysium still intrigues. What happens if the earth becomes a third world nation and the elites abandon it for another planet or space station? Who leaves and who stays? How was that facilitated? Blomkamp's film suggests we are headed toward a world of hoarded resources, of robotic police incapable of nuance, and poverty for many. I wanted more intelligence and deep thinking about big ideas while the film wanted to fire cool weapons and to clumsily show robotic men slamming into each other. As both a science fiction film and an action picture, Elysium misfires.