Elysium Review: Matt Damon Takes On The Rich For The Poor

District 9 is arguably one of the greatest pieces of science fiction filmmaking in recent memory (I'll stop short of saying of all time). It's original, it's incredibly important in its tone, themes, and in the story it has to tell, it's international, it's relevant, and on top of that, it's very well-made, beautiful, and entertaining. It's what science fiction should strive to be in an age where many filmmakers are bogged down by CGI and special effects, and it's what sets writer/director Neill Blomkamp apart from the competition.

That's an awfully high standard to live up to when it comes to your next project. And unless you're the second coming of Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, it's doubtful that you can follow up one of the best science fiction films of all time with an even better science fiction film, and unfortunately, that's exactly what happens with Elysium.

It might be unfair to start a critique of one film with a take on a director's previous film, but that's exactly the mentality that I and certainly many other people had heading into theaters to see the new film, and as a result, there's really no way around the fact that it just doesn't live up to what Blomkamp managed to accomplish with District 9.

That's not to say that Elysium is a bad film. It's a good film, possibly even a great film, and again, it tries to be tonally and thematically important in what it's telling us, but there's something missing from the equation, and that might be either (or both) originality and this obsession with effects and big budgets that has overtaken the genre lately.

District 9 was made on $30 million budget with unrecognizable actors and practical special effects that ended up coming out unlike anything we had ever seen before. Elysium nearly quadrupled the budget of its predecessor, added one of the most bankable stars currently in Hollywood and one of the most recognizable faces in film from the last 30 years, and ended up giving us a more effects and action oriented film.

Elysium, as you probably know, takes place over 140 years in the future. The earth is overpopulated, resources have been exhausted, and almost everyone is poor. Those who are no longer poor live on a giant space station called Elysium, which orbits the earth with its own power source and sustainable ecosystem. Those people have access to miraculous and magical medicine which can cure cancer and any other disease in an instant, lavish homes and food and so much more. Meanwhile, the people on earth have to fight and scrounge to eat, yet alone work and live their lives. What's more, they're oppressed by the robotic police offices created by the rich in order to keep them in line and away from Elysium.

Damon's character Max is a former criminal who has decided to go straight and work, likely to eventually be able to afford to go up to Elysium, even though that's proven to be a pipe dream for so many. An accident at the plant however gives him only a few days left to live, so he decided to go to his former employer and crime lord Spider (Wagner Moura) in order to fly up to Elysium and heal himself. Spider agrees, but only if Max does one last job for him, so he fits him with an exo-suit which gives him strength and powers, and sends him off to steal the brain information from John Carlyle (William Fitchner), the Elysium citizen who owns the company for which Max worked for.

But things aren't as they appeared, Carlyle is more important than they originally thought, so Elysium's defense secretary (Jodie Foster) sends a dangerous mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley) and his crew out to retrieve him, and from there things get a little insane.

There's a lot going on in the film, maybe too much for its own good. There's political conspiracies, corruption and quests for power, robotics, genetic manipulation and human and technological advancement, ideas of dystopia and the separation between the rich and the poor, and that's just to name a few of the themes from the movie. In fact, it manages to touch many of the pillars of science fiction, and while it does a decent enough job of balancing them all, it would have probably turned out a lot better for Blomkamp if he focused on one or two of these aspects instead of trying to fit them all in.

Of course the idea is that a lot changes in 140 years, and if you're taking such an approach to a film and a world then you have to touch on a lot of different aspects, but still, the pace ends up being a little too frantic and disjointed for most of the movie.

When you look at the film, it would have been easy to pretty much entirely cut out Jodie Foster's subplot from the film or really just merge her character with Fitchner's. Copley's character somehow ends up getting overused, even though the marketing campaign suggested the opposite, and through it all there's somehow also a love story between Max and Alice Braga's character, and a friendship between Max and Diego Luna that's almost entirely forgotten later in the film.

Again, there are some great themes in the film, and a lot of is smartly crafted by Blomkamp. For instance, I really liked how most of the people on earth spoke Spanish, while the people on Elysium spoke French natively. The idea of genetically and robotically enhanced humans is also cool, and the brain hacking aspects are well-handled, but many of them and other parts of the film just aren't elaborated on.

For instance it's almost too hard to believe that this world has a medical chamber that just cures you of any and all diseases and that can even bring people back from the dead. Nothing about Elysium or how this place can exist in place is ever even bothered to be explained. In a way, it's understandable that Blomkamp would want to approach these things matter-of-factly, instead of bogging his story does with a lot of exposition, but he could have also just decided to cut things out and made the plot a little leaner (I mean, he could have just done a take on Robin Hood in space, when you think about it).

It might be the characters that suffer the most though. I already mentioned that Foster and Fitchner's characters are both interchangeable and kind of forgettable, and the same could be said about Braga and Luna's characters and what they mean to Max. It's really Max that suffers the most, as we never really get to the bottom of what makes him tick. Despite Damon's best efforts, he almost comes off as this generic action hero. Even though the film mentions he used to be a criminal, he has no problem being a do-gooder either, but maybe more than anything he really just wants to live and be alive, and that felt a little disingenuous to me, especially since other than physically, he doesn't seem to go through much change during the film.

What's worse, the film's third act is basically just action eye porn surrounding the control of Elysium. In a way, you expect the third act of any film to beef up the action, and what Blomkamp does, he does well, but you sort of go into this expecting something a little more understated, and that third act just takes a fairly large leap in tone and pace.

Again, it's not that anything really in the film is bad, it's just that Blomkamp tries to take on too much, yet we still don't really don't get to see anything we haven't already seen before, because he only touches on many of those aspects and plot points. It also doesn't help that this came out only a few months after Oblivion, which has a very similar plot and surprisingly a more concise and focused plot. I think Elysium is a better film, a more meaningful film, but honestly, I didn't think I would be even considering this as a discussion after seeing Oblivion.

Maybe we put Blomkamp on too high a pedestal after District 9, maybe it's just that hard to craft a great science fiction movie these days, but in all honestly, while I liked it, I can't say that i wasn't disappointed with Elysium, with all its promises as an original film in the genre.

Elysium gets a heavyhearted 7 orbiting space stations out of 10.

Comments 2
Rob Cote's picture

This movie was so boring. Nothing makes sense, the characters are inconsistent, and it has the most half-assed attempt at making audiences care that I've seen in a long time. I agree that we shouldn't have to compare this to Oblivion, but I think Oblivion was a stronger film, and I was actually thinking that pretty much the whole time I watched Elysium. This was completely forgettable. Except Sharlto. Gotta give the man props.

George Prax's picture

Even Sharlto's character was kind of comically villainous. I enjoyed his performance but his arc is just kinda stupid. I didn't think it was boring, but many of the problems you mentioned were definitely there. It was just sort of an esoteric movie with a very vain attempt to be meaningful, and I expected a lot more from Blomkamp.