‘Elysium’ Heads To The End Of The Earth To Weigh Its Script Against Its Visuals (Movie Review)

elysium whysoblu thumbThere has been a fair share of original science fiction films hitting theaters in the past year; many of which depicting earth in a dystopian setting.  Films like Looper and Oblivion show earth at various levels of despair, while also finding a way to provide beauty in the aftermath of a planet overcome by destruction.  In his follow up effort to the smash success that was District 9, writer/director Neill Blomkamp has come up with his own take on a futuristic earth ravaged by society and the answer that humans have developed.  This is all combined with an action plot about a man trying to save himself, only to be drawn into the things that make up the political and sociological themes of the film.  Given all of the visual splendor to behold in the film, whether or not Elysium is a success as strong as District 9 is entirely dependent the script, which has an issue with rushing through a lot of development and not providing enough smarts in the dialogue to go along with the eye candy.

Max:  They can fix this on Elysium.

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Taking place in 2154, the world presented in this film is one of crime, poverty, and overpopulation, which has led to the brilliantly naïve plan of having the privileged simply leave the planet and live on a utopian society in the form of a large space station that floats in space, just outside of the planet.  This space station, known as Elysium, is happy to shelter the rich and preserve their depiction of perfection, as well as remove all sorts of health issues, thanks to machines that eliminate all diseases and injury.  Society on Elysium is held intact thanks to strict anti-immigration laws that mean to stop the lower societal people of earth from getting in.  It is the 99% vs. the 1% taken to the extreme.

I have not even started to describe earth yet, but it is a great setup for a film.  Elysium certainly evokes other sci-fi properties, but Blomkamp is determined to establish his own brand for his films.  As with District 9, the depiction of earth is not a flattering one.  There is a lot of grit and plain color tones to go with the earth we see.  Set in Los Angeles, the land feels less like a sprawling metropolitan city and more like a South American favela.  The area is filled with criminal activity, amongst those who are barely getting by thanks to menial labor jobs.  Among those jobs, we see one taking place at a factory responsible for building robots that serve as authority figures.  This is where we meet the film’s hero, Max (Matt Damon).

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Max borders on being an anti-hero, as he begins the film as a guy just trying to get by, following a criminal past that has put him into prison, only to become solely determined on preserving his own life, which forces him to commit kidnapping and robbery, in order to get what he wants.  As the stakes get raised, Max’s goals shift as well, leading him down a more noble (and derivative) route in order to have the film hammer home its points.  What makes a lot of this okay is the skill of Damon as an actor.  Damon is so continually good in films that he makes a lot of it feel like he isn’t even trying.  That is a commendable thing to attribute to an actor that has gone to the lengths of shaving his head bald, becoming muscle-bound, covering himself in tattoos, and still making it look easy.

Not so easy is what the film puts Max through.  In an attempt to have the best of both worlds, Blomkamp finds a way around giving Max superpowers or a large mech suit by having him fitted with an exoskeleton that allows him to become more powerful, yet remain a relatable human.  The push of the story for Max comes when he gets into an accident that leads to his life suddenly having an expiration date.  He needs to participate in criminal activities in order to be rewarded with a trip to Elysium, where he can heal himself, as a reward.  Nothing about this is simple however, as Max is pushed to his physical limits, just as the films premise is pushed into having a heavy emphasis on action and less on finding a cleverer way to build on Blomkamp’s world.

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To be fair, I love the action in this film.  It is chaotic, visceral, and explosive when it presents itself, with an eye for really having it stick with the viewer in terms of how it shows people getting hurt.  As much as the film works based on depicting the environments, technology, and other world-building aspects, Blomkamp is just as happy to delight in seeing people get blown to bits via explosive devices or shoot at each other with powerful rifles.  The fact that we even get to see plasma shields pop up elicits some bonus geek points for those convinced that Blomkamp would easily make his HALO film adaptation, were he ever to be given the chance again.  Something can be said for the tightness of the photography during some of the action sequences, but it is the kind of style that actually works in a film like this, rather than detracts.

There is no real problem with the fact that the film becomes a well-shot chase movie, with lots of action scenarios, but once the film does head into its more violent direction, the script seems to become inexplicably worse for it.  The dialogue is very obvious, the themes become hammered over the head, and it leaves little room for the other actors to add nuance to their characters.  My biggest issue with the film may actually be that it feels like it is in a rush to get to its end, which will have a large impact on the world that has been established in this film, rather than take more time in letting the audience become absorbed into the society depicted.  Not that Elysium needed to build itself into a franchise, but there really is enough material here for a couple films, despite the need for a ticking clock to propel Max’s character.

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Elysium does have a supporting cast that helps add some balance to the film.  Jodie Foster plays Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, who will stop at nothing to keep the rich people within the bounds of luxury.  Alice Braga stars as Frey, a nurse and childhood friend of Max, who does not quite factor in as anything more than someone to eventually guide Max’s conventional motivations.  More interesting is Wagner Moura as Spider, an underworld kingpin, who serves as both a revolutionary and a human trafficker.  There is something to be said for how representative his character is of the themes of the film, but at the same time, providing Elysium with international flare in the casting does lead to more interesting views on the types of people these actors are playing.  This is somewhat betrayed by the fact that Matt Damon is practically the only white guy living in his territory, who also happens to be the one that could help all of the other minorities, but the direction of the film keeps these thoughts somewhat at bay, until after the fact.

This notion of casting is best represented by Sharlto Copley, so good at playing a man balancing his racism against being a naïve, but well-meaning person in District 9, now coming off in a completely different role as a sadistic mercenary tasked with stopping Max and all who threaten Elysium.  Sticking with his South African accent, Copley is the kind of villain who has boundless energy and a strange type of charisma, which makes you love to hate him.  Given that the film never quite figures out what to do with Jodie Foster’s character, it is not too much of a surprise that Copley’s Kruger character becomes the bigger threat, as the film gets deeper into its story.  They ‘why’ of all of this is not something that is handled the best, but the energy that Copley provides is a solid way to give the film an anchor it can fall back on to great effect.

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Having been given an A-list cast, a big budget, and the means to fully realize his visual conception for Elysium, I wish Blomkamp had a stronger screenplay to help have the film deliver more.  There is a wonderful amount of inventiveness that seems so clear in its presentation that it is a shame the flaws become so obvious due to everything else coming together so well.  That should not stop people from checking this film out while it is in theaters though.  The film is great to look at, has a lot of fun, despite being a violent and grim R-rated feature, and provides action spectacle matched with some intriguing concepts.  As far as seeing artists having the chance to share their voice in the realm of big sci-fi spectacles, I am glad that Neill Blomkamp is among them.

Spider:  They will hunt you to the edge of the earth for this.

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Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.


1 Response to “‘Elysium’ Heads To The End Of The Earth To Weigh Its Script Against Its Visuals (Movie Review)”

  1. Gerard Iribe

    I agree with you 100%, Aaron. Even with your final score – I also give it 3 1/2. It’s extreme style over substance, which works for that, but could have been so much better. Nowhere near as great as District 9.