Movie Review: Elysium
By Matthew Huntley
August 14, 2013

Mad Max? Is that you?

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 surprised many people because it was a science fiction actioner with brains, which it actually placed ahead of its brawn. It had social relevance and urged people to think, all while serving as an entertaining blockbuster that was able to leave an emotional imprint on the audience, right up to its closing shot.

It’s no wonder, then, that expectations are so high for Elysium, Blomkamp’s follow-up film, which has similar ambitions to make a difference. But even though its noble intentions help make this a decent movie, they don’t necessarily make it a good one. Don’t get me wrong - it’s clear Blomkamp yearns to tell stories that are informative and serve a purpose greater than escapist entertainment, but Elysium too often puts its “traditional” entertainment elements in the foreground, while its sociological implications and characters get watered down. As a result, the movie comes across as more of a standard genre picture than a thoughtful, complicated commentary that goes above and beyond its call of duty. This is understandable, I suppose, since it carries a reported budget of $130 million (vs. the $30 million made to make District 9), which means the studio likely stepped in and made sure it was as action-packed as possible to ensure they recouped their investment. Still, that doesn’t make it right.

Like so many sci-fi movies lately, the story takes place in the distant future - Los Angeles, 2154 - after war, pollution and overpopulation have rendered Earth dirty and fraught with disease and destitution. The wealthy, to maintain their high standard of living, have moved to the manmade planet of Elysium, where the powers-that-be have made it nearly impossible for any non-Elysium citizen to breach the surface and reap benefits like proper health care. As the super-rich enjoy artificial blue skies, luxurious mansions and fancy food, the people on Earth are left to endure pathogens, overcrowding and malnutrition.

It’s been like this ever since the end of the 21st century, and one man, Max (Matt Damon), vowed that he’d one day make it to Elysium and even promised his fellow foster-child friend, Frey (Alice Braga), he’d bring her with him. Max had a rough upbringing and his previous run-ins with the law have kept him closely monitored by the robotic guards that patrol the planet. Like so many, he struggles to get by, working as an assembly line worker for Armadyne, the company that constructed and continues to defend Elysium. One day, an accident at Armadyne’s factory exposes Max to a lethal amount of radiation and he’s told he only has five days to live. The head of Armadyne, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), flippantly orders Max be replaced as quickly as possible and production carry on as usual. After all, he’s got a corporation to run.

Carlyle’s attitude is in line with the Secretary of Elysium, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who isn’t afraid to flex her own muscle when it comes to sustaining the man-made planet. She thinks of Elysium as her baby and is quick to order the seizure and sometimes killing of trespassers via a ruthless mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). When Elysium’s president (Faran Tahir) shows the slightest bit of mercy toward immigrants, Delacourt views him as a threat and asks Carlyle to reconfigure Elysium’s system, which would essentially make her president (I’m still not sure how this is possible). In exchange, she’ll grant Armadyne a 200-year defense contract, among other favors.

Max eventually finds himself caught up in this scheme when has no choice but to sneak onto Elysium for medical treatment. He reaches out to a smuggler named Spider (Wagner Moura) and says he’ll do anything to save his life. Spider takes him up on the offer and asks Max to hijack Carlyle and sync their brains so Max would possess Carlyle’s sensitive corporate knowledge, which, in turn, would grant Spider a lot of power and profits. To aid him in the mission, Max is souped up with an exo-skeleton and soon becomes the sole possessor of Carlyle’s reboot program, making him a very precious commodity to both sides.

The parallels between the social, corporate and governmental issues in Elysium and the real world - which stem from controversial topics like national security, health care, unfair wages, illegal business deals, immigration, etc. - are obvious, and Blomkamp’s screenplay doesn’t do much other than let us know they exist and they’re bad. Instead of really delving into them and offering solutions or greater insight, the movie simply uses these subjects as a backdrop for a moderately kinetic sci-fi adventure that once again boils down to a routine race against time and a battle of good vs. evil. The problem is we’ve seen this kind of sci-fi action stuff before, and even though it’s competently executed, it’s ultimately nothing special. The question I have is, if you’re going to bring so many contentious matters to the table, why not go the distance and actually discuss them instead of settling with more shootouts and special effects sequences?

On top of that, the movie doesn’t go out of its way to develop its characters beyond their archetypal roles. Max is clearly the flawed but noble hero; Frey is the damsel who must eventually be rescued (she’s even provided emotional baggage in the form of a daughter who’s been diagnosed with leukemia); and Delacourt, Carlyle and Kruger are your standard villains, with Delacourt representing the corrupt government official, Carlyle the evil corporate executive, and Kruger the trigger-happy, violent military man. Blomkamp gives them no chance to obtain greater depth and become more interesting.

We know what Elysium is going for, but in the end, it falls short. As a social commentary, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. It would rather function as sensational and somewhat superficial entertainment than hone in on the problems it suggests are tearing our world apart. But while it’s one thing to state what the problems are; it’s a whole other to offer solutions. I applaud the movie’s effort in at least carrying out the first part, but that wasn’t enough. Yes, it probably would be a lot harder to make a blockbuster movie that really attempts to talk about and solve the world’s problems, but just think about how much bigger and relevant a payoff it would have if it succeeded.