As a big fan of District 9, I had been looking forward to this for some time. I erroneously thought this was the follow-up to Neill Blomkamp‘s sci-fi thriller set in South Africa when I did this post but by the time the trailer came out, obviously this is an original story that doesn’t involve aliens from another planet.
This sci-fi fantasy takes place in 2154, where the gap between haves and the have-nots have reached astronomical proportion. 99% of humanity’s population are still slumming in a ‘diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated’ earth, whilst the 1% of the elite and wealthy folks live in the lush and green ELYSIUM. It’s the ultimate ‘gated community’ aboard a lavish space-station where every mansion is complete with robotic servants and magical medical beds that can heal ANY ailments, yes including cancer and a full facial reconstruction surgery in a matter of seconds! Ok, so there’s no superhero in this movie but heck, who needs one when you’ve got a SUPER healing mechanism at your beck and call. Unfortunately, the machine only works if you’re a citizen, and Elysium’s border patrol is equipped with rockets ready to fire at illegal aircrafts entering its airspace.
Matt Damon plays a down-on-his-luck Max, a parolee who’s dreamed of leaving in Elysium ever since he was a little boy living in an orphanage. There’s one comedic moment in the entire movie where Max had to see a mechanized parole officer, as the rest of the law officers and other service workers are in the form of robots. Things just gets bad to worse when Max gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory. With only 5 days to live, he’s desperate to get to Elysium. In order to get up there, Max has to somehow download crucial information from an Elysium citizen’s brain straight to his. That’s what those exoskeleton stuff you see on the film posters are for. The surgery scene is brutal, I have to shut my eyes as metals are drilled and screwed into Max’s body as if he’s a car in auto shop. When he finally comes out of it, Max practically looks like a robot with powered metals attached all over his body and a computer implanted into the back of his head.
I enjoyed watching all the fantastical futuristic elements, and Blomkamp surely isn’t lacking imagination and ambition. What this film also lacks is subtlety, just like D-9 was an allegory for apartheid, Elysium’s political and sociological themes on class warfare, healthcare and immigration are sure to divide audiences. He cites that growing up in South Africa is the main inspiration of the class division theme in this film, and despite the seemingly obvious commentary about border security and universal healthcare, he said that there’s no political agenda here. Even the über Liberal and politically vocal star Matt Damon downplays the political overtone. I think how much those stuff bother you depending on your political views and interest. For me, this is just another big Summer thrill ride that gives us a bit more food-for-thought amidst some bombastic (literally) action sequences.
Speaking of Damon, I think he acquits himself well here though I didn’t really have as big of a emotional connection as I did with D-9’s character Wikus, who I think is a far more tragic character than Max. I also think that though Max is played out like an action hero (Bourne meets Terminator?) instead of a truly desperate and ruthless character hellbent on saving his own life at any cost. I read that Blomkamp originally wanted Eminem in the role, now I’ve never seen him act before but I wonder if he’d actually do a more convincing job. Jodie Foster as Elysium defense secretary Delacourt is distractingly awful here with her robotic acting style and absurd accent. Yes I know that Blomkamp intended the accent of Elysium residents to be an amalgam of different languages but it just makes me laugh! I wonder if having those residents speak multiple languages (like in the underrated sci-fi drama Code 46) instead of with a myriad of accents might’ve been more realistic.
It’s also too bad that Sharlto Copley is reduced to this sadistic special ops agent whose killing method of choice is blowing people up into pieces. His character can’t be more dissimilar than his debut in District 9, which proves he’s a capable actor, but his villainy role is written like a caricature. I like the International cast here, Brazilians Wagner Moura and Alice Braga, Mexican Diego Luna, Pakistani-descent Faran Tahir, as well as veteran character actor William Fichtner made up the supporting cast.
In terms of special effects and production quality, clearly this film delivers, thanks to a much bigger budget of $100 mil. But having more money and A-list cast don’t always translate to a better film, in fact, D-9 with its uniquely organic style is still more compelling in terms of my the emotional connection I have with the protagonist. Plus, Elysium is decidedly more ‘Hollywood’ in that it’s more predictable and comes with a feel-good and simplistic ending. Yeah as if it were THAT easy to solve such an extreme class warfare. Seems that Blomkamp ends up being preoccupied packing the third half with relentless fight scenes and stuff blowing up that the finale feels rather out of sync with all the sense of realism and intriguing ideas that preceded it. At a relatively brisk 109 minutes, there’s barely room for character development either, the villains are just evil for evil’s sake with no real motivation.
Final Thoughts: Now, even though I think Elysium is a bit of a downgrade from D-9, there are still many things to appreciate. As I mentioned before, the futuristic space stuff are fun to watch and the story also gives us something to ponder even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to the idealism being presented on screen. It could’ve been a more in depth and compelling film though, alas the the typical Hollywood happy ending keeps this from being a notch above a cool Summer sci-fi escapism.
What are your thoughts on this movie? Did you like this more or less than I did?