It is almost impossible to review Elysium without making reference to its older and more proficient sibling, District 9. There was a lot of pressure for it to live up to Neill Blomkamp’s previous blockbuster; indeed, the plot and back-story carry not-so-distant echoes of District 9‘s themes.
Whereas District 9 focused on racial segregation with parallels to Apartheid South Africa, Elysium takes a more generic class conscious angle – one which, sadly, has already been done to death. Examples include the likes of In Time, The Hunger Games and the 2012 remake of Total Recall. As themes in fiction go, it dates back to 1900s literature – Charles Dickens being one obvious practitioner – and, though it’s obviously still relevant to the world today, Elysium finds nothing new to say on the subject. In short, what Blomkamp does in the film is present us with an upturned top hat and proceed to pull a rabbit out of it: it’s all very impressive, but it’s been done before.
Elysium is set in two contrasting worlds: a dilapidated future Earth, inhabited by herds of disenfranchised humans, and the utopian Elysium – rolling hills and waterfalls nestled in a concave circular structure orbiting the planet – home to the privileged. Elysium itself is a visually stunning, exquisitely rendered environment – the design and SFX work is generally sublime. It’s clear from the beginning that this new world the wealthy have created isn’t exactly a tourist destination: the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Earth have only a minuscule chance of getting there as any attempt to enter the air space surrounding it is met by annihilation.
Max, played by Matt Damon, works at a factory, ironically helping to create the very police bots which, as a former con, oppress him. We know, thanks to brief intermittent flashbacks, that his lifelong ambition has always been to go up to Elysium with childhood sweetheart, Frey, played as an adult by Alice Braga. The flashbacks also set Max up for the bleak future he faces: as a child, Max is reprimanded for stealing by the nuns that raise him. Deprived of all opportunity, with no chance to fulfill his dreams, Max is destined to make some bad decisions. With such a hectic plot, however, Elysium has little time for character building: with his need to get to the space station at any cost, Max comes across as almost entirely self-interested. He has a sense of humor, shown in one of the first couple of scenes, but he’s very much a character type, as opposed to a flesh-and-blood human.
All notable aspects of Max’s personality vanish without trace when disaster propels him into desperate circumstances. It’s the classic story structure of ordinary guy forced into extraordinary action, though how Max deals with his new situation, in a way, does a better job of showing us who he is than a slower, more considered approach might have done. Overall, Damon does a good job, I think: always convincing in terms of emotion and by the end of the film, his character has changed drastically. It’s Elysium‘s ending that, in my opinion, goes a long way to redeeming its flaws.
There are a couple of occasions in the first 20 minutes, where, if you miss something, it may hinder your appreciation of the gravity of the whole situation. This first act is pretty fast-paced and sometimes feels a bit rushed in setting the story in motion. Jodie Foster‘s ruthless Delacourt, Secretary of Defense aboard Elysium, gets no room to breathe, and, as such, Foster herself is forced to over-act in order to compensate for her extremely dull character. The bland, emotionless nature of her role, devoid of motivation besides “keeping out the poor”, is pure stock villain. Sharlto Copley‘s jubilant Kruger, at least holds the attention.
Max’s exoskeleton, featured so heavily in the film’s publicity campaign, was cool, but I couldn’t quite accept that, merely hours after undergoing such a drastic operation, Max was able to walk, let alone fight off a crazed South African mercenary. There wasn’t enough explanation of what the exoskeleton does, how it was made or why – it just felt like it was stuffed in there to make it more plausible for Damon to carry out his impossible task within the deadline, to give him a fighting chance. Elysium‘s deeper themes to do with universal healthcare and immigration were also never truly done justice: the film’s magic bullet approach to the problems it establishes – free medi-pods for everyone! – doesn’t make for a compelling case.
Despite these criticisms, overall, Elysium was good. As standalone science fiction, it was exciting, edgy, and gritty; compared with District 9, I would say that Blomkamp should have branched out more in terms of oeuvre. The more you analyze the film, the more the flaws become apparent, but, in a world where decent sci-fi flicks are few and far between, we’ll take what we can get.