Movie Review: Elysium
In Neill Blomkamp‘s new summer offering, the floating city of Elysium serves as an unsubtle metaphor for unobtainable prosperity and the tremendous gulf between the haves and have nots. Unfortunately the movie itself becomes caught in the limbo between two worlds, one a soul-searching social commentary more closely resembling Blomkamp’s well received first effort, District 9, and the other a summer friendly action movie that Elysium‘s second act takes pains to imitate, with limited success.
Elysium is the tale of two cities- Los Angeles: crowded, filthy, brutal and hopeless; Elysium: pastoral, idyllic, rich and careless. A floating paradise sustained by ruthlessly strip mining the surface world of its materials and labor, the space station Elysium inspires the denizens of the Earth to continue their thankless toil in hopes of one day affording an illegal ticket to a better life. A ticket that an early sequence shows to be a death sentence to nearly all who take it. The introduction of the film shows us a young man, Max (played as an adult by Matt Damon) who grasps at Elysium’s haunting promise of a way out of despair, and promises to take his young play mate, Frey (played later by Alice Braga) out of the earthly ghetto with him. This desire should drive the action of the film, but instead the script meanders for another half hour in order to allow Blomkamp to point his camera at the horrors of life on the surface, and is mostly forgotten.
Other events ham-fistedly conspire to all but compel Max to attempt a voyage to Elysium, and the movie quickly becomes a heist movie with sci-fi trappings. Forced to rob a high ranking Elysium citizen who inexplicably has access to the very heart of Elysium’s government (and yet must fortuitously travel often to Earth because…well, he needs to be on Earth to sneer villainously at Matt Damon and get himself robbed, obviously) Max becomes embroiled in a power grab on Elysium that threatens the whole stability of the gated community in space. Some slick action sequences follow, Max gets to Elysium with Frey in tow (as well as a needlessly complicating sick daughter, just in case there was any doubt Max HAS to get to Elysium) fights through a rather lack-luster security structure, and is faced with a difficult decision to act heroically after spending most of the movie being a selfish jerk. Guess which he chooses?
“Matt Damon about to do some soul searching, American Style.”
Besides being the story of two cities, Elysium is torn between being two movies. On the one hand, the sweeping ghetto scenery and visceral look at life on a worn out Earth harkens decidedly back to the morality play of District 9. Clearly Blomkamp has opinions on social justice issues, and is at his best addressing them visually through sci-fi metaphors. On the other hand, we have a rather standard summer action film of the variety the Rock makes his bread and butter on, where a down and out every-man must perform a questionable deed in order to protect his loved ones. Whereas District 9 was mostly social commentary, devolving into chase movie fairly late in the film, Elysium is split nearly 50-50, and both stories feel under-served because of it. Too little time is set up establishing Max as a hard nosed ex-con capable of pulling off a daring smash and grab, making the action seem incredible. Conversely, too little time is spent showing Max as a put upon pawn of the greater power structure, so the social justice aspect feels tacked on. One scene of police brutality and a few shots of Max at work are juxtaposed with Jodie Foster (unfortunately relegated to a rather one note role as the plotting Secretary of Defense of Elysium) sharing wine and french pleasantries at an Elysium garden party, and are intended to convince us of the dire divided between the two worlds. It falls flat, lacking the punch of Blomkamp’s earlier outing. Aliens living on garbage have a lot more emotional voltage than Max working a shit job and Frey nursing a daughter in a home equipped with hospital-grade medical gear and a flat screen TV. For all its squalor in wide shots, Los Angeles just isn’t desperate enough, oddly.
The chief gripe with the schizophrenic script is that morality tales and heist movies demand vastly different rules to operate within. When a director is trying to get a message across, certain leaps of logic and odd causality are acceptable. We can accept that certain nonsensical operations must occur if we’re told they must in order for the story to work. That is the province of fairy tales, and it’s hard to argue the physics of a magic bean-stalk or a talking mirror since we tacitly agree that they only exist so that the tale can proceed. A slick heist flick can’t play as fast and loose with our sense of credulity, since the whole tension is of powerless yet smart protagonists using the rules of the game to one-up the powers that be. If the rules are arbitrary and feckless, the action seems to occur just because the director wants it to, and that ruins the excitement. Much like Damon’s power armor, many aspects of the film seem welded on ad-hoc just to get from point to point, instead of arising naturally from the world of the film.
In a Better World
It is always difficult for a sophomore effort to recapture the glory of surprise success, and often a good second entry is marred by comparison, but in the case of Elysium, Blomkamp hews so closely to what made District 9 a winner that comparison is unavoidable. Closer attention to detail, a slower unfolding of plot (indeed, District 9‘s strength may have come chiefly from the plot developing so late in the film, instead choosing to focus on the actual milieu of the created world for an extended period,) and a more nuanced take on social issues (racism and apartheid in District were handled much more deftly than the class warfare in Elysium, with everyone, even the hero, vaguely at fault for the poor state of society, instead of the clear, mustache twirling villainy ginned up for Elysium) all mark areas that Blomkamp’s first movie is clearly superior at portraying. Elysium does have some very expertly done visuals, including some gun play effects that are truly novel and jaw-dropping, but sorely lacks the heft we suspect Blomkamp to be capable of. Here’s hoping the third time is the charm.
“Well, not on popcorn and a large soda, apparently.”
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