Elysium – Review


Best enjoyed in the moment, not upon reflection

Elysium is an entertaining science fiction spectacle. From its look and design it has all the bells and whistles that only help reinforce that Neill Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, wasn’t a fluke. He’s a director that knows how to grip audiences – here’s a secret: It’s not all about wowing them with special effects. But his latest isn’t without scrutiny. In a year where it seems the average length of movies has jumped up to 130 minutes, Elysium seems short at 109 minutes. Thus, everything seems rushed. Audiences rarely have the time to enjoy the universe Blomkamp has created. This is especially true of the titular location, “Elysium,” a space colony in which its look was inspired by sketches from NASA’s 1970s Vision of Space Colonies. So while I left the theater satisfied, I couldn’t help but want more from Elysium.

Set in the year 2154, the film opens with text that informs us that Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have left for Elysium, a sort-of Stanford torus space station Shangri-la, due to our planet’s overpopulation, pollution and depleted resources. With its Beverly Hills mansions and excellent health care in the form of machines that miraculously correct all illnesses and impairments, Elysium is definitely money well spent. As the rich relax thousands of miles away from Earth, those inhabitants left on the planet are either struggling to make ends meet or are criminals. There’s little in the way of a middle ground. The contrast of the meticulous lawns and clear blue swimming blues to the pueblo and shantytown cityscape of Los Angeles is brief, but still eye-opening and an instant attention-getter. It’s one of the marks against a film like Man of Steel as well; not being able to see more of Metropolis, or Smallville for that matter.

With the setting established, we are introduced to Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), a reformed car thief who now works a blue-collar job at a machine shop that specializes in mass-producing robots. The temptation to return to his old life is there in the form of his buddy, Julio (Diego Luna), but as a reminder of a time when life was its most pleasant there’s Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood crush of Max who enters the picture as a nurse all grown up with a daughter who is terminally ill. When Max finds himself in a similar situation after a workplace accident, though with a shorter timetable of life expectancy, he makes the decision to get himself up to Elysium and see about taking advantage of their medical facilities. Things get complicated in the form of a coup transpiring on the space station at the behest of Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and the introduction of a mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who Delacourt uses when she needs some highly sensitive wetwork done.

Much like District 9, Elysium contains similar action that goes way beyond phasers set to stun. It definitely earns its R-rating, and I applaud Neill Blomkamp for not being swayed to have his vision fall into the realm of PG-13, even if it means dropping some coarse language and toning down the head-splitting violence. In terms of the action, unfortunately it falls victim of “shaky cam” syndrome. At times one of the fight scenes was so hastily shot and poorly edited I thought about downing some Dramamine I keep tucked underneath my tongue (what you were expecting LSD?) in order to avoid motion sickness.

As I stated, Elysium seems rushed. Some of those story developments don’t take long to mature. It’s understandable to see why the story must have a rat-a-tat rhythm, and that’s because Matt Damon’s character doesn’t have long to live. But to throw in a coup, while in its own way impactful, it seems pure coincidence that Max finds himself embroiled in a situation where ultimately he does more than just get to Elysium to get cured. He gets to Elysium and ends up saving the world. That seems to be the MO these days. Saving himself or a family member is too easy. He’s got to save Alcatraz, or the White House, or the world, or the galaxy. I will give Blomkamp this: He does incorporate one plot development I didn’t see coming.

The marketing of the film may be tied to Matt Damon primarily, but Jodie Foster as the scheming defense secretary is more interesting. Sadly, her political doings are kept in the background and only come up as a means to advance the plot. If only Elysium were a mini-series or a serial so we could have seen her character more developed. You can’t say the same of Kruger, played by District 9‘s Copley. His grizzled countenance with a body that seems subjugated to cyber engineering (Hmm, sounds a lot like “we can rebuild him. We have the technology.”), Kruger is a mercenary. He’s also a madman. Copley, who actually served as Blomkamp’s boss while the two were working at a TV station in South Africa, has come into his own as a actor, first with getting a start in Blomkamp’s first short film then following that with District 9. He steals every scene away from the Oscar winners and becomes the most interesting character. It’s because of Kruger that audiences even become invested with Matt Damon’s Max character. Yes, Copely is so captivating as a villain I can only imagine what he brings to his role as the antagonist in Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake this fall.

Where Elysium loses me is in the reflection. It’s so easy to be wrapped up in a film at the moment that one hates to take the time to mull it over and give it further scrutiny. One could say it has a liberal bent based on what the Earth of the future has in store – it’s a giant dump with an obvious division in class status. This is nothing new to science fiction. If there’s anything worth complaining about, it’s not the politics but the resolution. The actions of a secondary character, who is part hacker, part coyote – as in makes an effort to get non-citizens up to Elysium for a price – is such an out-of-character moment that I don’t know what Blomkamp was looking to achieve. It’s a development that will mostly be ignored by the viewing public, but it irked me in retrospect.

Still, while Elysium is no surprise like District 9 was four years ago, it is a late summer refresher as far as supposed blockbusters go.

Writer/Director: Neill Blomkamp
Notable Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner

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