Maybe I’m misremembering District 9, but I’m pretty sure it was a good movie. Sure it might blow up more humans into chunky, bloody smithereens than the average stomach should be able to stand, but it coupled its visceral action with a decent story, well drawn characters, and a powerful allegory about apartheid. Elysium fails to achieve similar success. Due to thinly drawn characters, a relentless pace, and a camera that feels like its been tossed in the blender, Elysium is a cold exercise in cool images that amount to little emotional worth.
When Elysium was first announced it was touted by bloggers to be another original idea from the mind of writer director Neill Blomkamp. Talk of originality has all but ceased now that the movie’s out for public consumption. That’s because Elysium‘s script is practically paint by numbers.
Hero with an ill defined “destiny”? Check.
Villain with an inconsistent accent and vague master plan? Check.
No clear motivations or sympathy for the villain? Check.
Hero is the “only one who can save us”? Check.
Love interest? Check.
The message of “don’t forget where you came from”? Check.
Looks like it’s all in order.
Which isn’t to say these elements make for a bad movie. Clichés are clichés for a reason. If you’re going to employ them your characters and plot had best be strong enough to support them. Elysium cannot, and because of this it only amounts to texture and nothing of substance.
The purpose of science fiction is to take current issues of the world and explore them on a larger than life canvas. Blomkamp understands this, and used District 9 to explore apartheid with great effect. He seeks to do the same with Elysium. In the year 2154 humanity has split into two distinct classes: the very poor, and the very rich. The rich live in the paradise of the space station Elysium. The poor live on an Earth that has been ravaged by overpopulation. The rich live forever and without disease on Elysium thanks to semi-magical medical pods that cure anything and everything with, I don’t know, lasers. The poor seek to get to Elysium, not to live there (the security means are too great) but to bring their sick to these magic med-pods for healing, only to be deported. It was worth it though, if their loved one was cured.
This canvas allows Blomkamp to engage issues like class warfare, immigration, and health care. Issues he clearly has strong feelings about as he explained in an interview this movie isn’t where we’re headed, this is where are are now. He understands that to discuss these issues on a large scale he must first make an entertaining movie. It is unfortunate that he loses sight of his intent in favor of vapid action spectacle.
Matt Damon plays our ‘hero’ Max Da Costa, a man who grew up in a Catholic orphanage and was told by a nice nun that he was special and that he had a destiny. He became a thief to survive, but he’s going straight now. His best scene in the movie is with his parole officer, a robot that looks like it was designed for children. He sarcastically berates the machine, and it can’t quite understand the depth of his hatred for it. It’s a humorous scene in what is a rather humorless film. Matt Damon is able make the thinly written Max feel like a person, relying on his personal charm. Which is fine, Damon’s got a ton of charm to spare, and I actually felt like I cared about him in the early scenes. It was only later when he is transformed into an unstoppable action hero that I lost my connection to his character.
In an accident at work Max is irradiated and given five days to live. In another strong scene, Max is lying on an examination table, wracked with pain, and a soulless robot throws pills at him as Max’s equally pitiless employer looks on, and demands Max is removed before his skin starts falling off. Yup. Sounds like most healthcare providers I’ve interacted with.
With nothing left to lose Max takes on a dangerous job for an old criminal contact, gets a strength enhancing exoskeleton drilled onto his body, and sets out to get himself to Elysium and one of those magic med-pods. To do so he’ll need to get past Sharlto Copley‘s Krueger, an Earthbound agent of Elysium, allowed to terminate immigrants with extreme prejudice. As a villain we never quite get a handle on Krueger. He seems villainous enough, despicable, surely, but he remains a cipher, so when he starts wreaking havoc, we’re left wondering why.
When Max winds up with a computer program in his head from his old employer (courtesy of that exoskeleton, what can I say, the future is weird, brain data and what not) that can rewrite the rules of Elysium, the story pours on the steam as it heads towards its predictable end.
Blomkamp and his team have a knack for creating dirty, broken worlds that feel like people actually live in them. For Elysium Blomkamp achieved this ravaged Earth by filming the LA scenes in a garbage dump in Mexico. The effect works, this future LA looks and feels like hell hole Blomkamp has envisioned. Similarly, the scenes on Elysium feel clean with a mixture of organics and technology, you understand why this is paradise. It’s opulent, and bright, filled with gigantic houses (that seem to never actually house people), and most of all it’s gorgeous.
Aesthetics are not Elysium‘s problem. Despite excellent production design and seamless CGI work, Elysium fails to connect. Blomkamp isn’t interested in the quiet character moment. Character beats and exposition are just obstacles separating us from exploding bodies, cool guns, and puréed fight sequences. Blomkamp wants to dazzle us in order to subversively discuss social and political issues. But in order to get there, he needs a story that’ll interest us, so he gives us the bare minimum to care about Max and his lost love, Frey. We’re treated to tiny vignettes of their childhood together. These scenes feel tacked on in an effort to drum up sympathy for a character we never really get to know.
By the time the characters reach Elysium the story has devolved into a cluster-cuss of coincidences necessary to move the plot forward. Nothing happens organically anymore, little seems to happen because of character choice, but instead because plot demanded it. Things just start happening for, as far as I could tell, no apparent reason. It all hinges on Krueger. Eventually he’s wearing his own version of the exoskeleton and killing everyone in sight, stampeding towards Max. Because, why not? The film needs a big climax and this gets us there. Sure, the ultimate showdown between Max and Krueger is cool but because neither of these characters are known to the audience on an emotional level, it’s an empty experience.
Elysium is basic fare. With a little more time spent on the script, and less time on impressive guns and explosions, it could have been something special. Blomkamp’s desire to paint on a big canvas with big social issues is admirable. I just hope that next time he remembers to make a good, functional movie as well.
****************************FULL SPOILERS BELOW********************************
Before we go, I just wanted to talk a moment about the film’s ending.
Now I don’t know Blomkamp’s faith background, but the ending of Elysium relies heavily on Christian imagery.
Max uploads the program in his head to the main computer of Elysium, which makes every person on Earth a citizen, eligible for medical aid from the magic med-pods. He looks down on Earth from the heavenly Elysium and remembers the nun who told him of his destiny. The upload kills him, he sacrifices himself for the people of Earth. Then white medical space ships descend down from Elysium to earth and eradicate all pain and suffering, and most of all death. The movie makes a point to tell us that no one dies on Elysium, the magic pods heal them of all ailments including age. So Max dies, and obliterates death for the masses. Sound familiar?
I don’t know if this was Blomkamp’s intent, but he has invoked the story of Christ in the final moments, and even uses the image of the paraclete, with the white space ships, almost like doves, that come to bring the aid made possible by Max’s sacrifice.
If only Elysium had a stronger emotional core I think that this would have been a solid ending.