Neill Blomkamp’s latest dystopian future film “Elysium” has a good concept and is well made but in the end Blomkamp doesn’t take it anywhere very interesting or refreshing. It’s not a bad film by any means, I was never flat out bored, though I couldn’t help but feel a little let down by its outcome. This is the same way I felt about Blomkamp’s 2009 feature film debut “District 9.”
The setup is solid. The year is 2154 and Earth (from what we can tell) has been reduced to slums full of crime and poverty. That’s where ninety nine percent of the population lives. However, not too far from Earth there lies a floating space sanctuary known as Elysium. This is where the one percent live perfect lives; no crime, no sickness (there are machines somewhat reminiscent of tanning beds that heal all diseases), nobody gets old.
“District 9” was an allegorical look at South African Apartheid, except instead of the Afrikaners being oppressed it was an extraterrestrial race known as Prawns. This time Blomkamp is targeting the upper class. The Elysium residents are neatly dressed unsympathetic robots, while the Earthlings are oppressed. One of Elysium’s prominent residents, a politician named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is especially unsympathetic towards the Earthlings and takes harsh measures when they try to sneak into the sanctuary. In an early scene, Delacourt calls on the help of a mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot down three ships full of Earthlings desperate to get into Elysium. Forty-six people are killed and she doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s bad news.
So, enter Max (Matt Damon) our lower class everyman turned hero to set things right. One day while working at his menial factory job (where they build the very robotic police officers that keep them down) he’s exposed to a deadly amount of radiation and is given five days to live. His boss, John Carlyle (William Fitchner), a resident of Elysium sent down to supervise, couldn’t care less so Max decides he needs to get to Elysium and heal himself. Of course it’s not that simple, it never is. In order to get an illegal ticket and I.D. he and few other criminal types (but they’re part of the oppressed Earth population, so they’re the good guys) must hijack John and extract information from his mind containing a plan that could possibly bring equality to both the populations. But the mission won’t be easy, not with Kruger and his cronies on his tail. As cool as the mind hijacking is (they extract the information using a flash drive type device which they can then plug into a computer) it’s one of those science fiction-y ideas that warrant its own movie. Blomkamp has enough here already, so it’s not entirely necessary.
As I said before, “Elysium” is well made. Blomkamp’s direction is sleek and moves at a comfortable pace. On just a simple sci fi/action movie level “Elysium” can be quite entertaining and I’m sure fans of “District 9” will like this one just as much, or maybe more. The production design by Phillip Ivey is spot on, capturing the neat cleanliness of Elysium and the rugged, dirt covered slums of Earth. There are plenty of cool gadgets and futuristic technology (bullets that explode before they hit you, flash drives that can be inserted into human heads) that general audiences will eat up. And Damon is always a reliable actor for these everyman-turned-action-hero roles. He plays Max with unshowy honesty, yet he doesn’t take the role too seriously, sprinkling in some humor here and there. Like with Denzel Washington’s recent performances, Damon can play Max in his sleep and that’s not a bad thing at all.
My main problems with “Elysium” have to do with the way Blomkamp approaches the concept. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing it from the point of the view of the oppressed lower class but at the same time it’s too easy. The Earthlings are the victims and the Elysium-ites are cold, heartless monsters. I would have liked to see Blomkamp approach it from a different angle, maybe from the point of view of someone on Elysium, or at the very least bring some more dimension to the orbiting sanctuary. We never really get to see how the world works and how its residents interact with one another and what they do everyday. They can’t all be bad, right?
Aside from her character being a one-note villain, Foster’s entire performance feels phoned in. It’s not to say she’s all-bad but it didn’t seem like she was putting much effort into it. Maybe that’s a result of under writing, but I hardly got anything out of her except for a predictable (and slight) feeling of anger because of how bad she is. As for Copley? The man is no doubt a talented up and coming actor that will keep on getting talented. In the three movies he’s been in, “District 9,” “The A Team” and this he plays completely distinctive characters. Too bad the character of Kruger doesn’t give him much to do except to be menacing bad guy.
Which is a shame because there is potential there for a better-developed character. In fact, I think Blomkamp could have made him the hero (or antihero) of the story. Even though he’s bad he’s also just a hired gun for Delacourt, he too lives in the slums with the rest of the oppressed. Making him the protagonist would have added some additional grittiness to the picture and would have made a more nuanced hero. As good as Damon is, Max is too clean (even though he has a criminal history). Right away when we see Damon we know we’re going to like him and root for him. Kruger on the other hand is scummy and repulsive (sporting long hair and bushy beard, with scars on his face) he’d have to earn the audience’s trust and respect as a hero.
I respect Blomkamp as a filmmaker. After only two films he’s shown that he has talent and I appreciate that he’s trying to bring ambition and intelligence to a big budget summer sci fi actioner (in the same way Ridley Scott did with “Prometheus” last year and Christopher Nolan with “Inception” in 2010) but with “Elysium” he isn’t ambitious enough. It’s easy to make villains out of the wealthy and victims/heroes out of the poor but I would have liked to see a more nuanced view of these coexisting worlds and their inhabitants.