The power of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium is summed up in dual images of the titular city, one a stunning pastoral of extravagant privilege nestled in the rings of a circular space station, and the other a shot from the ruined Earth below it, where orphan kids stare up at the gleaming totem of hope and dream of a better life. This looming craft, created with realism and care by the production and FX teams, looks like it was ripped right off the pages of 1950’s pulp novels.
Of course, many of those stories didn’t feature real science or classy speculative fiction, but were often tasty, vivid tales of straightforward heroes, mercenary villains, fetching damsels and social anxiety writ large as breathless action. It’s important to remember that influence when coming to Elysium, which isn’t the transformative sci-fi epic we might have hoped for, but instead serves the same purpose as those long ago dime-store thrillers, hurtling through tried-and-true melodrama while introducing ideas that stick around afterwards. The film could be more ambitious, but it could hardly be better made then it is.
Elysium picks up on the polluted shell of Earth in 2154 Los Angeles (looking like the slums of South Africa), following down-on-his-luck parolee, Max De Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-thief turned factory worker. To add injury to the insult of his life thus far, Max ends up getting a lethal dose of radiation in a job-related accident and is callously informed he has five days to live, given a bottle of painkillers, and sent on his way home to finish up in anguish. Although some helpful flashbacks inform us that De Costa isn’t a bad sort—he and childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) used to plan of going to Elysium, the city in the sky—he’s made desperate and reckless by his lack of options, and turns to underground ringleader Spider (Wagner Maura) to broker a deal to save his life.
In addition to being a clean, pleasant permanent vacation for the very rich, Elysium is also a world eradicated of disease, illness and general suffering; a strong contrast to the aching, ruptured terra firma below. The medical breakthroughs up there allow almost any infirmity to be cured —including devastating gun damage and terminal sickness— but this option is only open to citizens, people born there or smuggled in by Spider on rogue spacecraft that slip past the radar. The immigrants usually don’t end up staying long before being rounded up and sent back, if they aren’t blasted right out of the sky before touching down. So futile is life on Earth that all are willing to take the risk. Spider ultimately offers Max a deal to get his ticket to Elysium, involving transference of memories from a well-to-do on the surface that would unlock substantial financial resources.
Outfitted with a bionic suit and honed in on his ex-boss Carlyle (William Fichtner), Max goes to work, but bites off more than he can chew, contending with rabid Elysium defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her Earth-bound lapdog Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a half-crazed sleeper agent who’s a gritty “necessary evil” for passive upper-crust types. Max will be tested along the way, coming to grips with his own self-preservation and how it contrasts to the have-nots all around him, not limited to but including Frey’s young daughter, who has leukemia.
Initially concerned with sketching a satirical world of class gaps realized as technological tyranny, Elysium quickly slips into actioner mode, and everything becomes more telegraphed and less interesting. The characters are quickly sketched, and given brisk makeovers by the cast. Damon gives a good turn, but he’s entirely too amiable as the harried Max, there’s never a real spark of ambition, sorrow or anger that would explain his momentum. Foster’s character is inexplicable really, feeling like a graphic novel contraption with her absurd accent and right-wing caricature. Best is Copley who channels burning contempt and impoverished rot into a wild-eyed murderer, the “worst case scenario” of the Elysium elite’s neglect. If he were cast as Max, in place of baby-face Damon, then the film might have gained immediacy to its superficial set pieces.
It’s a tricky critical trap to fall into, but oft times you can find yourself describing the movie you wanted to see, instead of dealing firmly with the one right in front of you. The problem with Elysium is that when approaching its flaws and considering how it could have escalated from pretty good to great, we already have a version of its hypothetical better self in Blomkamp’s debut feature. Made for almost 90 million less than Elysium, District 9 was a smart, original and viscerally exciting exploration of classic social issues, stripped down to play close-quarters and realistically rugged. Yes, it was basically South African apartheid with overgrown shrimp, but it worked, not least because of the humanity bubbling up under the brutal violence. With Elysium, Blomkamp skews so closely to the previous film, echoing similar metaphorical ideas, creating a visually comparable future world of believable squalor, and hitting almost identical character and action beats, that it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the new movie on its own terms.
That canny skill and unquenched visual style that made District 9 feel concrete– like historical document as opposed to far-flung flight of fancy—appears again in Elysium, and this time it has the money behind it to expand the scope and complexity of the science fiction ideas. While the world itself looks exquisite and tangibly realized, there’s more often than not, a glossing over of the mechanics of the space station and a hands-off approach when it comes to the logic involved in the story. This allows Elysium to run on pure adrenaline for its finale, and even when we have a pretty certain idea of where it’s headed, there’s much pleasure in watching it play out.
As much as I admired and enjoyed aspects of the film, it’s not solely expectations that dilute its impact; the truth is, this story is never given the same passion and attention at the script level and the characters never feel as lifelike. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen District 9 (and possibly even if you have), Elysium may play as a more refreshing spin on usual Hollywood blockbusters. Blomkamp proves again he’s a genre filmmaker of real formidability, but next time I think he needs to leave the Earth-bound bleakness in his rear view.
Elysium opens in wide release in the U.S. on August 9th and in the U.K. on August 21st.
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