Pollution is bad. Overpopulation is bad. Economic disparity is bad. I’m not making any political statements here in this review. I’m just sharing with you the complexity of the political messages made in the new film Elysium. From the director of 2009’s Oscar-nominated District 9, Neill Blomkamp, Elysium arrived into theaters amid a lot of anticipation from Science Fiction fans who were looking for a smart, well crafted thriller that would be a worthy addition to the genre. Blomkamp made an impressive and unique sci-fi adventure with District 9, which was done on a small indie budget, with no known stars in the cast and it touched upon issues that you usually don’t see in many mainstream films. Given that his follw-up film Elysium has been given a more substantial budget and features a few notable actors like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, you’d think that Blomkamp would’ve delivered amazing based on how well he did the first time around. Unfortunately Elysium is a misfire on every level, and probably stands as the worst movie I’ve seen all summer, if not this year. It’s clunky, boring, ugly to look at, and worst of all insulting. Not just insulting on the level of its political subtext, but insulting in it’s storytelling as well. There’s so much wrong with this movie that it’s astounding to see so many talented people involved.
The story is paper thin, and is essentially a race against the clock narrative. Matt Damon’s character, named Max DeCosta, is a blue-collar factory worker in Los Angeles in the year 2154. He trudges through his daily life, dreaming of earning enough money to reach Elysium, a massive satellite colony orbiting around the earth. Elysium is where all the wealthy people have migrated to, after pollution and overpopulation has made Earth a horrible place to live. Citizenship on Elysium is extended only to those who can afford it, and everyone else is left to live on earth, policed by an army of robotic officers. Max suffers an accident at work which leaves him only five days to live and the only cure for him is on Elysium. This leads to him joining up with a band of underground smugglers, who have been sending up ships filled with people to Elysium in an attempt to get them the health care they need. Max offers to assist the smugglers in their attempt to hack into Elysium’s security system; even putting a body-enhancement armor wired into his brain as a way to keep him functional as his body deteriorates. At the same time, the security manager on board Elysium, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is taking desperate measures to prevent any more illegal immigrants from entering the colony, to the point of staging a coup against the leaders of Elysium and hiring a deadly mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt down the smugglers.
Now, there’s nothing really wrong with the premise itself; it’s the execution. Elysium feels disjointed and lackluster from the opening prologue all the way to the anti-climatic finale. It’s as if Blomkamp just crafted the idea of the story and then never bothered to flesh it out. The film feels like it was stitched together from a bunch of different action set-pieces, with plot conveniences acting as the glue. There’s a scene about halfway through the film that just left me stunned at how incompetently it was staged. First off, Max finds himself in the home of a childhood friend, who works as a nurse, and who helped to heal a wound of his in secret. Max learns that his friend’s daughter is also sick and needs to be healed on Elysium too. The dialogue in this scene between Max and the little girl is so on the nose that it’s maddening, and you just know that it will come up again later once Max has his “heroic” moment in the finale. Also, once Max exits the house, almost immediately he’s spotted by a drone spy camera sent by the mercenary Kruger; a plot development so convenient it’s laughable. It’s scenes like this that illustrate just how phony the film feels. There’s no logical progression in the character’s motives and actions; it’s all telegraphed beforehand by the necessities of the plot.
Character development is also kept to a minimum, and any attempt to add any is quickly brushed over in favor of more action scenes. Max makes for a very obnoxious protagonist as he continually does one selfish thing after another. It seems like he was meant to be representative of the average blue-collar guy who always gets short-handed in life, which in turn will make us want to root for him. But I found Max to be a selfish and cynical wise-ass, and I felt no connection to him at all. Max isn’t some noble crusader for justice; he’s just a selfish guy who doesn’t want to die. His quest would be more noble if he wasn’t dragging other people into it, many of whom sacrifice their lives to help him succeed, including his neighborhood buddy. You can make a cynical character work out sometimes in a story like this, as long as there’s some depth to him. Max unfortunately doesn’t change throughout the whole movie; he’s just a man on a mission and that’s all there is to him. Any attempts to flesh his character out is usually sidetracked or just plain dropped within seconds in the movie; including an attempt at a romantic connection with the childhood friend, which went absolutely nowhere.
The same is true with some of the other characters. The Elysium inhabitants have absolutely nothing that distinguishes them apart from one another. Many of them aren’t even named. Only Secretary Delacourt is given any amount of substantial screen-time, and even she has nothing special to add to the story. She’s probably the blandest villain I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. We’re supposed to see her as this tough-as-nails overlord, but the film does nothing more than to show her sitting in her commander’s chair looking stern as she barks out her orders to her security team. We learn that she wants to take command away from the governing body of Elysium, but that’s it. Again, Blomkamp is trying to make us feel one way about a character without ever explaining what motivates her characteristics. Every character in this story is just one cardboard cut-out after another. The one standout, and the film’s only saving grace, is Sharlto Copley’s Kruger. His character is still archetypal, but done in such an extreme way that it actually becomes entertaining. I credit this more to Copley’s performance than to the way the character is written. When Kruger starts to wreck havoc in the film, it’s the only time that the movie comes alive, because here you have a character that is actually doing something unpredictable and actually throws a few twists into plot. If only the other characters could have been given this type of treatment; then I would have overlooked some of the film’s other shortcomings.
The politics of the film are also problematic; not in the fact that they’re there, but rather in the way they are delivered. Blomkamp’s political allegories are about as subtle as a bag of rocks to the head, and they’re delivered in the most ham-fisted, patronizing way possible. Now, it can be said that District 9 lacked subtlety too, and I wouldn’t argue that point. But what District 9 did so well was to get audiences invested in the personal story of it’s characters while using the political issues as the subtext for what was going on; in this case, the arrival and quarantine of an extraterrestrial race acting as an allegory for Apartheid policies in South Africa. That film kept the politics and the story balanced well enough to make the film resonate both as a narrative and as a social studies lesson. In Elysium, that balance is gone, and you can’t help but feel like you’re being lectured to in the most gratingly obvious ways.
Not only that, but I feel like Blomkamp is trying to inject too many political ideas into his film, some which lead to a number of contradictions. For instance, the movie states that overpopulation is a plaguing problem for people on Earth, while at the same time also saying that one of the unfair inequalities between the rich and the poor is that the wealthy inhabitants on Elysium have amazing health care that cures them of all diseases and age flaws. Not to sound horribly unsympathetic, but wouldn’t technology like this make overpopulation even worse if everyone had access to it, making it so no one would ever die. I know Blomkamp is trying to make a case for universal healthcare, but it seems like he undercuts his own statement in the film by trying to mix it with another, completely different issue. And while I don’t want to fault Blomkamp for wanting to make a politically-conscious film, I just wish he would have at least thought through how all the statements could have worked together as a whole. I go to the movies to be entertained, not to be preached to, and Elysium just feels like one empty pontification after another.
The film also has many faults in it’s design, as well as it’s pacing. The film has the unfortunate timing of being at the tail-end of a summer full of post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies. With films like Oblivion, After Earth, and Pacific Rim already reaching theaters before it, audiences can’t help but feel fatigued by all these similarly themed films. Pacific Rim was able to distinguish itself because of its playful nature, but Elysium just doesn’t have the same kind of confidence in itself. The art design feels like a mixture of Blomkamp’s own District 9 with a bit of Kubrick’s 2001, a bit of George Miller’s Road Warrior, and even some oddly-placed Anime inspired visual motifs are thrown about. (Seriously, what the hell was with those blossom trees in a factory during the film’s climax?) For the most part, the film has a grimy and dirty visual look, which would have worked had it not felt so heavy-handed and artificial. Not helping much is the awkward pacing of the movie. It runs 109 minutes, but it will feel much longer mainly because the story-line is so predictable. You’re left impatiently waiting there for the film to reach the conclusions that you already know are going to happen and the fact that no scene in the movie ever concludes on a satisfying note will also leave many people as bored as I was.
Elysium is a colossal disappointment from beginning to end. There are so many other good Science Fiction films that touch upon political issues out there, including Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and I recommend everyone should see that film instead of this piece of junk. The film’s reception has been a tepid one, but it has received some mild reviews from the critical community. Sorry to be a little cynical about other critic’s opinions, but I feel like some of them are glossing over the film’s narrative shortcomings because they agree so heavily with the politics behind it. Again, it’s not the political messages that I have a problem with here; it’s the execution of the story. I can excuse some cases where a film has an agenda driven message as long as it functions well enough within the story-line. Elysium just felt like such a shallow attempt to make an action movie with a “brain,” so to speak. If it weren’t so lazy and blatant, I would have probably reacted a little differently to the film. Elysium set out to make me feel many different things over the course of it’s run time and in that case, it succeeded; it made me feel bitter, apathetic, and wondering why I wasted my money to see it.