Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley & Diego Luna
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Release Date: August 2013
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: In the year 2154, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Delacourt, a government official, will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn’t stop the people of Earth from trying to get in by any means they can. When unlucky Max is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that, if successful, will not only save his life but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.
Reflecting the wealth divide that is present in our own culture, Elysium tells the story of an Earth so ravaged by disease and poverty that the rich have relocated to a luxurious space-station in orbit around the planet. The majority of the human population remain trapped on Earth in menial labour roles, working to support the wealth of the Elysium citizens who live a life of happiness and contentment above. Obvious comparisons can be made to the 1% and the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the drastic economic disparity between developed and developing countries. This trope has been seen in science-fiction many times, most notably in Final Fantasy VII and to a lesser extent, Wall-E, but it remains extremely prescient given our own inabilities to adjust this divide.
Elysium is director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the hugely successful District 9 and as such, it shares a similar aesthetic to that movie. There’s a grittiness to the scenes set on Earth that feels real and authentic, mostly due to the use of real locations in Mexico City as opposed to the sets and CGI. Set in 2151, the film offers a grim view of the future and acts as a biting social commentary on things such as health care, immigration and social class division. The main thrust of the film involves the people on Elysium having access to miracle healing bay machines that can cure any illness, but they choose to hoard that technology for themselves instead of sharing it with the poor below. Direct comparisons can be made with our own healthcare and how charities work to raise money to provide basic healthcare to some of the poorest areas in the world.
One sequence early on in the film shows a group of poor, desperate immigrants flying towards Elysium. Two-thirds of them are shot down on approach, but some of the remaining survivors manage to reach one of the med-bays to cure a crippled child. Once cured, the mother and child are violently seized and deported back home. It’s not a million miles away from the haunting visuals of immigrants washing up on the beaches seeking refuge, willing to risk their very lives for the hope of a better future. Blomkamp does touch upon these themes, but never capitalises on the emotional impact as the film instead focuses on Matt Damon’s Max, a terminally-ill criminal desperate to save his own skin. Damon is understated in the role, and doesn’t quite have the emotional range to get you to care about his character enough. Much like with his performance in The Martian, I found it difficult to connect with the character.
There are some great supporting characters however that liven up the film. Sharlto Copely chews the scenery in fine fashion as the psychopathic Kruger, a South African sleeper agent on Earth who eagerly performs unseemly tasks for the head of defence on Elysium. I loved the cocky swagger of the character and his use of Afrikaans slang – it made him stand out and contrasted against Damon’s more subdued performance. While Jodie Foster is the scheming puppet-master behind events, she is underused and overshadowed by Copely’s more energetic wildcard villain. I also enjoyed the performance from William Fichtner, as the CEO of Armadyne, as he brought that air of barely-restrained contempt for others that he perfected in his role of Mahone in Prison Break. Alice Braga was impressive as Max’s love interest Frey, but again her role felt underused and so some of the emotional pay-offs didn’t quite ring true. Similarly, Diego Luna’s role as Max’s best-friend was cut short and could have been developed better if he’d been given more time to shine.
Elysium doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to violence and there are a number of extremely brutal sequences, often involving exploding body parts. Death is sudden and shocking, as evidenced by one sequence where a character loses most of their face to the impact of a grenade. The heavy artillery and futuristic gadgets on display are impressive, as are the robotic guards that maintain law and order on the planet’s surface. These little touches of sci-fi help with Blomkamp’s world-building and make his dystopian view of the future seem more real. However despite the film’s title, most of the action takes place on Earth and when it does feature Elysium, it takes place mainly in non-descript corridors. It would have been nice to see more varied environments in the final act of the film, but it devolves into more stereotypical sci-fi action at this point.
Politically-charged and uncompromising, Elysium is sci-fi with a message – although that message is somewhat blurred amongst the need to showcase an action adventure. The climax attempts to rush a happy ending, but the film has to make a few leaps in logic to get there. Personally, I’d have preferred it if it had been a more intimate story, perhaps focused on the fate of one or two characters, rather than turning it into a “world-changing event” that changes the future forever. Poverty is a complex problem in our current lifetime and there is no magic “McGuffin” in our time that will suddenly redistribute the wealth and healthcare to everyone, so it feels somewhat insincere to have things neatly resolved here. Sometimes small is better, and if the story had remained focused on Max and Frey, I think it would have held more emotional resonance than it did.
Despite its flaws, Elysium is an enjoyable movie and a worthy attempt at using science-fiction to challenge audience’s preconceptions and thoughts about real-world inequalities. Often as robotic as the exo-skeleton that covers him, Damon benefits from the strong supporting performances by his co-stars and the impressive visual effects that help bring this poverty-stricken future to life.