May 2021

Elysium (2013)

elysiumDIRECTOR: Neill Blomkamp

CAST: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Faran Tahir


Elysium is a tense, engaging sci-fi action thriller with an intriguing premise that’s good for almost two hours of entertaining escapism, but it’s also a film that wets the appetite while leaving us wanting more. Neill Blomkamp, who previously put his name on the radar with his sci-fi hit District 9, again shows himself a formidable contender within the sci-fi genre, but he doesn’t go far enough. There are paradoxes and questions here that beg exploration, but the surface is only scratched of the Big Ideas, and some lurking at the edges of the frame are not delved into at all. There’s too much here to flesh out in an hour and forty-nine minutes. This is a clear case of a movie that could have stood to be significantly longer. What’s present is entertaining, but there’s a mildly underwhelming sense of unrealized potential.



The year is 2154 (incidentally the same year in which James Cameron set Avatar, though the films have no connection). A polluted, dilapidated Earth has been abandoned by its wealthiest citizens for Elysium, a luxurious orbital space colony where state-of-the-art medical pods can instantly cure disease or injury, and its residents want for nothing. Elysium’s hawkish Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) ruthlessly defends her restricted community by any means at her disposal. Meanwhile on Earth, former car thief turned paroled factory worker Max De Costa (Matt Damon) suffers a fatal radiation dose in a workplace accident that will kill him in five days. His only hope: Elysium. Max gains further motivation when he’s reunited with childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose young daughter is sick with leukemia. Since he can’t afford passage on an illegal shuttle—and those tend to get shot down anyway—Max resorts to more extreme measures. After being retrofitted with a cybernetic exoskeleton surgically grafted to his body, granting him superhuman strength, Max becomes embroiled in a plot to kidnap billionaire businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner) for his Elysium access codes. But the mission becomes even more dangerous than Max thought. Carlyle is in cahoots with Secretary Delacourt to hatch a coup and install Delacourt as Elysium’s President. Soon Max is in possession of more than he bargained for and Delacourt, alarmed at her scheme being exposed, dispatches her Earth-based sleeper agent, a volatile maniac named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down.



Rather than a philosophical meditation on the universe it’s created, Elysium is first and foremost an action thriller, with the scenario as a backdrop. That’s not really a criticism; the movie is smarter than a generic action flick, and it has a kinetic kick and builds high levels of tension in some sequences, particularly the Carlyle kidnapping attempt that quickly spirals out of control when Kruger and his goon squad arrive on the scene, but the already too-short running time is hindered from delving into any of its issues too deeply when it must set aside substantial chunks of time for the action scenes. There are some inventive bits, like the gun that sends out a shock wave that disintegrates everything in its radius, showcased in a nifty slow-motion shot of a robot shattering to pieces. The visual effects are first-rate, especially the space colony of Elysium, with a clear nod to 1970s NASA concept art of orbital space colonies, the various shuttles, and the enforcer robots, which are all CGI but blend in with the live action with near-flawless verisimilitude. There are some shockingly graphic bits of violence, especially when holes are drilled into Max’s skull to attach the exoskeleton, and SPOILER WARNING an exploding grenade blows someone’s face off (the med bay facial reconstruction afterwards is one of the movie’s niftiest effects shots). The computer virus Carlyle creates for Delacourt to take over Elysium reminds me a little of The Dark Knight Rises‘ plot with the “clean slate” and Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints in the way it simultaneously feels both convoluted and facilely simplistic, and the movie also engages in a little too much clichéd talk of “the one” who is “destined” to do something “special”.  The all-purpose med bays that can apparently instantly fix anything from broken bones to cancer to a blown-off face (!) are also a bit of a conveniently cure-all plot device.  Elysium does take some chances and occasionally have something unexpected happen, including how things wrap up, which will surprise some viewers and won’t necessarily satisfy everyone. I don’t demand conventionally happy endings with every movie, but what bothered me more than SPOILER WARNING the self-sacrifice was how the epilogue seems to wrap things up in a neat little bow and doesn’t address the crisis of resources which Elysium is surely about to experience, making it questionable how long the “everyone is saved” conclusion is going to last. Just as it could have been longer, it could also go in fertile and ethically challenging directions with a follow-up.



elyzium-new-pictureMatt Damon is solid as Max. Three outings as Jason Bourne cemented his action hero credentials, and he’s a good enough actor to keep a humanity and vulnerability that doesn’t make Max seem invincible or superhuman even when he’s tearing off robots’ heads and throwing people across rooms. The only other “big name” in the cast, the usually-reliable Jodie Foster, is unimpressive. Part of this is because she has limited screentime and her role ends up being surprisingly insubstantial, but blame is also due the over-the-top, affected way she plays her scenes. Foster speaks strangely—given her name Delacourt, and her introductory scene featuring her showing off her fluency in French, I’m assuming she was going for a slight French accent—and snaps out her lines in such strident, overwrought fashion that she seems at times to be twirling her nonexistent mustache. Foster is okay in some non-verbal scenes, stalking corridors in an immaculate power suit and looking bitchy, but when she speaks, she’s often surprisingly unconvincing. Elysium‘s real primary villain is Kruger, Delacourt’s loose cannon attack dog whom she doesn’t have as much control over as she thinks, played by a scenery-chomping Sharlto Copley, who previously starred in Blomkamp’s District 9, here looking and acting a bit like a bad guy we might find in a Mad Max movie.  Kruger is a nasty piece of work, and Copley is entertainingly gung-ho and teeth-gnashing, although his thick South African accent makes a fair amount of his dialogue virtually unintelligible. Brazil native Wagner Moura as Spyder, a black market operator who hooks refugees up with illegal shuttles and Max with his exoskeleton, is annoyingly overplayed, hobbling around with a cane and manically spitting out lines with an accent that rivals Copley’s for incoherence. More effective supporting performances come from Alice Braga as Frey, Diego Luna as Max’s friend Julio, and William Fichtner, affecting an almost robotic speaking style, as billionaire businessman Carlyle, though of the above, only Braga has major screentime.



So, is Elysium “liberal propaganda”, as some have claimed? Eh, not really. Yes, it features a huge class schism between high-living, oppressive rich people and downtrodden unwashed masses, but those are hardly novel concepts. Blomkamp paints in broad strokes with less-than-subtle touches, including a a meerkat story that hammers home the point with a metaphorical sledgehammer, but I didn’t get the feeling the director was trying to ram his political agenda down viewers’ throats. In fact, it’s entirely likely Blomkamp was using the apartheid past of his native South Africa for inspiration as much as anything. Interestingly, there seems to be a racial divide between Earth and Elysium, with Max and Kruger seeming to be the only white people in 2154 Los Angeles (and even Max’s last name, De Costa, and the fact that he regularly switches back and forth between English and Spanish, makes one wonder if he was written as Hispanic and “whitewashed” to hire a big bankable star like Damon), while Elysium’s President Patel (Faran Tahir) seems to be its token minority face, and only appears in a couple brief scenes. I’m not sure if the racial segregating was a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers, but it’s one aspect that has opened them up to more accusations of propaganda and political agendas from some circles.



Elysium is fast-paced; the one hour and forty-nine minute runtime passes briskly, and as stated before, the movie in fact could have stood to be longer. It’s visually first-rate, and the action sequences have a kinetic kick. The graphic violence also makes this a more adult experience than some summer action flicks, and in an era where more and more thrillers that should be R are watered down into PG-13, it’s kind of refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t pussyfoot around. I walked out of the theater mostly satisfied by what I’d seen but wanting more, and feeling like there were issues that went unexplored and plenty of room for more material that could have been added on. Still, a movie that leaves us wanting to see more of its universe is preferable to a movie that leaves us wanting even its short running time back.



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