A sci-fi actioner that has ambitions of saying something about more than a couple of hot-button issues currently facing the world — and the United States in particular — Elysium might be a disappointing follow-up to director Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, but that’s only because almost anything he did would be disappointing in comparison. Elysium is still good and worth seeing, but just lower your expectations a touch before sitting down to start it.
The film takes place in the year 2154, which sees Earth turned into a garbage-filled dump. Overpopulation and pollution finally took their toll on the planet, leaving it in this state. The wealthy people decided to build their own utopia, creating a space station called Elysium a short journey from Earth. The poor people left on the formerly green planet work as a cheap labor force for the residents of Elysium. They don’t have access to healthcare or benefits, leaving many sick and injured. Nobody on Elysium cares. Anyone trying to leave Earth for Elysium without proper credentials is blown out of the sky.
Our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon), who winds up in a freak accident at his workplace which poisons his body with a lethal dose of radiation. He is told he has five days to live, and is given a pill so that he can function normally until his death. He knows that on Elysium are machines called Med-Bays which instantly heal all injuries or sicknesses. He makes getting to Elysium his new goal in life. Getting there is going to be more difficult than illegally crossing the border into America — yes, the film is as heavy-handed as that analogy, but you can’t say it doesn’t make its point.
To do this, he winds up being molded to a robotic suit which gives him more strength than he normally has, while also eventually having something of a miniature army. Meeting him along the way is a childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), along with her sick daughter (Emma Tremblay). If you can already see where this is going, you’re probably not alone, but the film’s smart enough to not feel too predictable while it’s playing out.
There are a couple of villains standing in Max’s way. The first is the entire Elysium defense force, which is led by Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). She plans to overthrow the current government because they disagree with her tactics in defending Elysium. This acts more as a device and less of a subplot, and it would have been nice to see more done with this. She enlists the help of a sleeper agent on Earth, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who is the real threat to Max and co.
Elysium eventually devolves into almost pure action, with little thought behind it. That’s okay. The stage is set and we’ve got those thoughts in our head; we don’t need the film to continue to hammer home ideas that we’ve already accepted. I just wish that the action was better. A lot of it seems lifted from other movies and even with all the technology on display here, little of the action seems to differ from random gunfights you see in every other action movie. Even the climactic battle is basically just a fist fight.
It is all really good looking action, though, and if there’s one thing that Blomkamp has it’s an eye for composition. The shots of Elysium are painting-like gorgeous and the action is well-staged for the film’s entirety. It’s interesting to watch how different Earth and Elysium are portrayed, too. Elysium is similar to how Los Angeles looks now — just with more future technology — while Earth (we see Los Angeles) is how many picture Mexico. No, that’s not subtle. Elysium isn’t trying to be subtle.
Max is a bland character and Matt Damon doesn’t do a whole lot of work to try to make him interesting. He has a simple motivation — self-preservation — for the majority of the film and even some conflicting feelings he might have for Frey and her daughter get pushed aside. It’s like anything interesting he would do got cut out because the film is pushing two hours and we needed more action scenes. He works as a generic action hero but not as a character.
The only real reason we have to cheer for him is because of how despicably evil Sharlto Copley’s bad guy is. Copley steals every scene in this movie and is so effective at playing this villain that we root for Max because, well, we don’t want Copley’s character to win. It’s pure evil versus banality, I guess, and out of those don’t you have to pick the one that won’t instantly kill you? Jodie Foster is in the film and puts on a strange accent but is ultimately inconsequential.
Elysium is a sci-fi movie with a purpose and a point, and while it’s definitely a fun time at the movies, you’re likely to leave wanting more: A more interesting main character, more inventive action scenes, and perhaps a sequel that explores the world that director Neil Blomkamp has created here. There’s more that can be mined from this property, I think. This isn’t a subtle movie — its ideas are very much out in the open — but it’s a fun ride even if you ignore its politics. Elysium is a good movie.