Review – Elysium

Elysium Poster

Neil Blomkamp‘s sophomore effort, Elysium continues in the political science fiction tradition that District 9 began.  In an overcrowded and polluted future, the wealthy have left Earth and live on a utopian space station called Elysium.  The rest of the population deals with poverty and sickness on a global scale while the citizens of Elysium are exempt from virtually any problems at all.

Matt Damon is Max, a rough and tumble Earth citizen who grew up as an orphan and has a criminal past.  When an accident at the robotics factory where he works leaves him facing certain death in a matter of days, Max is determined to make it to one of the many healing pods on Elysium, where any defect can be healed in a matter of minutes.  With nothing to lose, he takes part in a risky job of kidnapping and downloading the memories of a high ranking Elysium citizen on Earth (William Fichtner).

Things might have gone off without a hitch if it wasn’t for the fact that this particular guy was also involved in a conspiracy orchestrated by the intense Secretary of Defense of Elysium (Jody Foster).  Incurring her wrath, Max is now facing a slightly insane rogue agent (Sharlto Copley) and all the deadly technology of Elysium being thrown at him at once.  Not only is his life on the line, but so is everyone around him, including childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga).

I am a big fan of District 9.  I thought it brought science fiction into a realm of quality, intelligence, and relevance that has been sorely lacking.  I found Elysium to be a big disappointment.  While it’s only fair to judge a film based on its own merits, the comparisons between Blomkamp’s two films are justified in that what one got right, the other got wrong.

District 9 had an overt message, yes.  It was a blatant allegory for Apartheid, but it told its own story, using irony and more subtle storytelling to drive the point home, however obvious that overall point may have been.  Elysium is a parable as well, but not about anything specific.  It takes the hot button topics of universal health care, immigration reform, national ID’s, and the elite upperclass and shoe-horns them all into one film.  I hesitate to say “into one story,” because there isn’t much of one here.  The plot moves slowly, yet doesn’t use that lack of speed to build much interest.  I never feel much of anything for the characters, and the narrative is more built around the points it needs to make rather than the other way around.

The story building may be weak here, but the world building almost makes up for it.  The same aesthetic that made District 9 stand out is back.  I am convinced that no one understands the term “gritty” better than Blomkamp.  When I say gritty, I don’t mean taking a previously lighthearted property and injecting dark and mature themes and style.  Blomkamp’s science fiction world feels real, lived in, used, and abused.  Gone is the sleek and shiny Apple look that permeates anything futuristic on screen these days.  Some of that exists, on Elysium, which makes sense.  For the most part, though, technology is very hard, practical, and dirty.  The excellent combination of practical effects with CG makes this film a joy to watch from a technical and artistic standpoint.

This film holds so much promise, but is bogged down by trying too hard to make too many points.  In the end, none of them really stick, and from a practical standpoint, the result of the good guys’ mission won’t either.  Sure, the system in place seemed unfair and inhumane, but the alternative introduced by the end of the film would surely throw the world into chaos, possibly bringing things right back to where they were before.  I expected something much more thought out, but despite the aesthetics and intent, Elysium feels almost as empty as the next Summer blockbuster.

Also, I’m disappointed that the parole officer was not Robert Picardo.

Mrs. Hamster says:

“I liked it.  It reminds me of District 9 and the Total Recall remake.”

My Rating: Three out of Five Hats

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Trailer:

Elysium orbits 3,284 theaters, including IMAX, August 9