Lately I’ve been way behind on my movie-going, but I had to see Elysium as soon as it came out. It’s directed by Neill Blomkamp, the man behind District 9. I didn’t expect Elysium to be as good as District 9, but I was looking forward to seeing Blomkamp do his thing: tell a damn good science fiction story. Elysium is very flawed, but it does succeed in telling a pretty awesome story.
The Premise. . .
It’s 2154, and Earth has become a dirty, dystopian world of shanty towns, with robots serving as police and not a lot of work to go around. The wealthy have already left Earth to preserve their way of life on the space station Elysium. You can see it from Earth.
As a kid, Max Da Costa daydreams about going to Elysium someday, where people supposedly don’t have problems. After all, up on Elysium, every mansion has a Med-Pod that cures everything — even cancer — in a matter of seconds… but on Earth, people can only seek treatment at hospitals rather than any real cures.
And so Max (Matt Damon) is stuck in a crumbling Los Angeles. In an accident at the robot manufacturing factory where he works, he’s exposed to lethal levels of radiation, after which he has only five days to live. The only way he can be cured is if he somehow makes it up to Elysium to use a Med-pod.
So he goes to Spider, a man who sends people to Elysium via illegal shuttles that are typically shot down before arrival. Spider will give Max an illegal ticket to Elysium, but first, Max has to do a job for him: get corporate information from someone from Elysium. Spider outfits Max in a metallic exo-skeleton that’s surgically screwed into his body. Beside strengthening Max, this exo-skeleton also enables him to download and store data — and Max insists that the target must be Carlyle, the uncaring owner of the factory where he had his accident.
This is the premise of the story, and it’s a good one. Particularly for the first half of the film, I didn’t know where the story was going to take me next, and the world was original enough to suck me in.
The problem is that the movie is named after Elysium, and Elysium is too perfect to feel real. We barely spend any time there, and all we see of it are perfect people in perfect pools in the backyards of perfect mansions.
But fine. Even being the title of the film, Elysium is not really a character. Maybe the station is just supposed to be this vague idea. Maybe it’s supposed to represent corrupt “perfection.” I could deal with that.
The People. . .
The problem is that that many of the characters in the film are also one-note.
On the one hand, you have Matt Damon playing Max, an every-man action hero. It’s familiar territory for Damon, but I loved seeing him in that type of role again. He does a fantastic job of playing a sarcastic but earnest ex-con who is desperate not to die. He’s selfish sometimes, but you know he’s going to come around and act all epic and self-sacrificial in the end. It’s a great story, a great character, and great acting.
Other admirable performances for me were Diego Luna as Max’s loyal friend Julio, Wagner Moura as the smart, irritable Spider, and Alice Braga as Frey, a nurse whose daughter suffers from leukemia… and Max’s first love from childhood. In other words, the main characters on Earth were awesome.
But then you get to the villains, and characterization becomes one-note. Jodie Foster plays Secretary Jessica Delacourt on Elysium, who wants to stage a coup after she’s dismissed from her office. She speaks in an unidentifiable accent (is it supposed to be French, or just futuristic?) and overdoes the curt cruelty. Her lines sound trite. The movie simply feels much less realistic in Foster’s hands than it does when you’re spending all that gritty time with Max, Frey, and Julio on Earth.
To help with her coup, Delacourt employs a slightly unhinged agent on Earth named Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley. (He’s the guy from District 9!) Copley is magnetic on-screen — and disturbing, as he should be in this role — so at least the acting shines here. However, Kruger’s motivations are never explained in the script. One minute, he’s barbecuing in a shanty town on Earth; later, he’s threatening Frey with rape. At one point, it seems he even wants to take over Elysium, so… where did that come from?
On Earth, the major villain is CEO John Carlyle, played by William Fichtner. He mostly stands in his posh office overlooking the factory floor, acting a little too repulsed by the dirty air on Earth. When Max has his accident and is exposed to radiation, Carlyle only cares about productivity… oh, and making sure Max’s skin doesn’t flake all over the floor and stuff. It’s dumb characterization, and without a good villain, a story like this can only be half-hearted. Worse, Fichtner doesn’t do anything to round out the role, seeming over-the-top with his disdain of everyone on Earth.
The villains would be so much better if they were real characters with real motiviations… but they’re not. This makes the film falter when the focus is with the villains and away from Max, who is a genuinely interesting character — a sort of ambiguous, reluctant hero. There are stirring scenes depicting Max’s life, friends, problems, and what things are like in this ugly, dusty version of L.A… and then there are clipped scenes with Delacourt and Carlyle scheming away like cardboard creeps.
The Problems. . .
Melodramatic political plots are far too common in science fiction anyway. I was hooked on Max’s personal story from the start, as well as the worldbuilding that spins around him, but the politics are depicted in a very fake way throughout the film.
Plus, Delacourt and Carlyle are staging their coup with some amazing code that can actually shut down and restart Elysium. It’s like the key to the castle (I think that’s actually a line in the film), but it just seems too easy.
The Med-pods also feel fake to me — almost like magic. And why wouldn’t they have some on Earth? Things like that just aren’t very clear, and the lack of explanation makes the story much weaker than it could be.
When things do get intense and action scenes hit, the strange cinematography choices ruin the experience. Most of the hand-to-hand combat is way too fast to follow with your eyes, so I had no idea what was going on in those scenes. This seemed to be a stylistic choice, but I can’t enjoy a fight scene if I can’t really see it. (One exception is a riveting shoot-out involving Max against robots in the middle of the film. When the film employs slow-motion for those blowing-shit-up parts, it works surprisingly well… because you can finally see what’s happening.)
The Point. . .
I wish I could rate the film in two parts. If that were the case, I would say the first half is fantastic. It’s an original landscape, with poignant flashbacks and characters you feel for and root for. But the second half of the movie falls apart. Although the plot doesn’t get too convoluted (thank goodness), the scheming suddenly gets a tad crazy without characterization to back it up. Moments that should feel poignant are hampered by how manipulated they feel. Even the themes and links to current issues — illegal immigration, health care — just aren’t explored in any way that’s insightful or even all that interesting.
If you can turn that part of your brain off, the movie does tell such a good story. It gets a little Gladiator-esque in parts — my sister commented on that afterwards, too — but the unique worldbuilding makes it feel like a truly original tale. I wanted to spend time in that world. I might not have wanted to live in L.A. in that version of 2154 because it’s not too pleasant, but while I was watching it onscreen, I was there.
The pacing, particularly in the first half of the film, is also excellent. Because Max has only five days to live after his accident, there’s an instant race-against-the-clock thrill. This also happens at other times in the movie, such as when Max and company have to download data extremely fast — before the bad guys show up, and before their target dies on them. And then you have Max running from Kruger, seeking out Frey for help, hiding out at her house while she nurses him back to health… but it’s not long before the action starts up again, and it’s always intensifying as more people get involved.
If only the villains had been fully fleshed out. And Elysium had felt more dynamic. And the Med-Pods hadn’t seemed quite so silly. And the fight scenes hadn’t been so dizzying. And the ending hadn’t felt so forced. Then I would have loved Elysium.
As it is, I liked it. In fact, compared to most other one-off science fiction films I see, I really liked it, because in spite of its flaws, it tried to be a smart sci-fi film. Just don’t expect District 9, and be prepared to ignore everything in the film that’s paper thin. Elysium is good in theaters, but it would make an epic rental.