Movie Review: Elysium

In the year 2154 two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Matt Damon plays factory worker Max Da Costa, a reformed convict who has aspirations of one day going to Elysium. A workplace accident (exposure to radiation) leaves Max with only five days to live.  In Elysium, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a government official, will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn’t stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.

In a summer of sequels, adaptations and reboots, writer/director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) is back with another surprisingly original sci-fi film. Elysium is a sleek, action-packed thriller, with a great leading man (Matt Damon) and interesting concept.

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Similar to Blomkamp’s District 9, there is a social message embedded in the film. District 9 was an allegory of the South African apartheid movement.  In Elysium, Blomkamp isn’t incredibly subtle. We see the clear separation, the 1% vs. the 99%, rich vs. poor, haves vs. have nots. The separation between these two “classes” is so severe that the rich have left Earth! The film also alludes to issues of national security, illegal immigration, and access to healthcare.

I really loved District 9. It was unique – an interesting mix of big budget effects and an indie-movie feel. For most fans of District 9 (myself included), expectations for Elysium were incredibly high. An excellent cast, and truly exciting trailer made Elysium one of my most anticipated films of the summer.

The first act of the film is powerful. The development of the over-populated and desperate population of Earth is effective. I’m a fan of Matt Damon. I think he’s a great action star, and is great at playing the “regular guy in extraordinary circumstances”. In Elysium, he doesn’t let us down. He carries the weight of his character’s plight – a dying man who has no other options. Throughout the course of the film, he develops from a frustrated and disposable assembly line worker to a unsuspecting hero for an entire planet – plus he looks super bad-ass with a shaved head and exo-skeleton grafted to his body.

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It’s when we finally see Elysium and its manicured perfection, that the story unravels a little. Jodie Foster usually plays the cold-hearted austere bitch with such elegance and grace. She’s perfectly cast for what this character should be – but was one of the low points of the film for me. Secretary Delacourt is an extremely one-dimensional character. There’s no remorse for her actions, no real explanation of her motivations… and her accent…cringe. I’m not sure what they were going for, but her stilted and awkward take on a French accent (while speaking English!) is completely jarring. I couldn’t focus on anything the character was saying – because I was too distracted by the way she was saying it!

Sharlto Copley is so incredibly over the top as Kruger – Delacourt’s sadist henchman. I really like him, I think this character was a lot of fun – but he didn’t quite fit in this film. We have almost no indication of what he’s capable of, what drives him, and why he’d be so loyal to Secretary Delacourt?

The film looks great. The ruins of Los Angeles and the opulence of Elysium are beautifully crafted. Blomkamp and his design team did a great job of setting up this future world.  It was a good, entertaining film that started out so interesting, but lost some of its focus under the weight of its grand scale and social issues. By the time we make it to Elysium – the film dissolves into video game violence (really reminiscent of Halo and other RPG games), clichés, vaudevillian villains, unanswered questions, and sadly, a predictable ending.

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It’s a solid action movie, with aspirations of being something greater. It’s more inventive and entertaining than a lot of action films that have been released this summer (*cough* Pacific Rim*cough*). It could have been better, and I expected a lot more from such a promising concept, talented cast and interesting director. Even with all of those flaws – and the unnecessary flashback sequences – I still enjoyed the film. It’s ok Matt Damon…I still like dem apples.

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SPOILERS…they’re the wave of the future…and the future is now.

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Elysium was supposed to be our redeeming summer blockbuster after quite a few duds. I enjoyed it, but compared it to District 9, it’s a bit of a letdown. It’s such an interesting concept for a film, but it’s executed in a heavy-handed manner. Everything is an extreme. You’re either rich or poor. Oppressed or oppressor. Only those that are on Earth are regarded as “good guys” and everyone on Elysium is the “bad guy”. Doesn’t anyone on Elysium have a conscience?!

This is epitomized in Jodie Foster’s character. Secretary Delacourt is vicious, cold and driven with one singular goal – keep the “illegals” out. She’s power-hungry, smart and scary – yet for all of her determination – we’re given no indication as to what motivates her. We don’t understand why this villain exists. All of her determination seems to fade the moment that Kruger stabs her (effectively killing her). She refuses help and decides that she’s had enough. She gives up entirely. A move that seems unbelievably out of character. This character could have been further developed as a truly formidable villain – but our attention is diverted to Kruger – Delacourt’s crazy sleeper agent.

I’ve already mentioned that his motivations also don’t make much sense. You could argue that he’s a sociopathic killer – he doesn’t need motivation. Kruger is an effective henchman, a roadblock in the grander scheme of things. The plot of coup d’état is dropped in favour of fight sequence that seems to have come straight out of a video game.

Some of the more interesting parts of the film occur in Max’s everyday life. On his way to work, Max is harassed and injured by PoliceBots – robots that he himself assembles at Armadyne. After his catastrophic workplace accident – the disdain with which his boss Carlyle (William Fichtner – who plays a great sleazeball) treats his employees is disgusting and really strikes a nerve. The class struggle as seen on Earth is interesting and chaotic, but we know nothing of Elysium. From what we’re shown, all they do on Elysium is have picnics and dinner parties. Blomkamp has shown us a one-sided argument, so it’s hard to be invested in what happens to the citizens of Elysium – are we even supposed to care?

We’re also introduced to Max’s childhood friend and unrequited love – Frey. Played by the wonderful Alice Braga – Frey brings additional complications for our friend Max when Kruger kidnaps her and her terminally ill daughter Mathilda. Unfortunately, Braga doesn’t get to do much except carry her unconscious daughter around for the second half of the film.

From the beginning of the film, with Max’s flashbacks of his childhood aspirations to visit Elysium and achieve greatness, we know how this film will end. Max will sacrifice himself for the greater good. He’s the convict with a heart of gold. I have no problem with this – and Matt Damon is one of the few actors that makes a predictable ending like this work.  We’re left with a lot of unanswered questions. We’re told that there’s an overpopulation problem on Earth. If that’s the case, wouldn’t curing every human being add to that problem? The film shifts its focus from the class struggle to free healthcare for all!  It’s very Hollywood ending to a film that aspired to be much greater and more nuanced.

I’ve been really hard on this film – and I think it’s because I expected a lot more. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining. It looks gorgeous in IMAX, the fight sequences are cool and the film itself holds a lot of tension, excellent effects and grand ideas. I appreciate that Blomkamp was trying to inject current issues into a sci-fi, but the film fails under the weight of its social soapbox.

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