Elysium: Shoot The Messenger, He’s Hogging The Movie!

I went into Elysium with fairly high expectations; Neill Blomkamp had impressed me with his work on District 9. With its interesting alternate take on First Contact with aliens and a pretty damn epic journey of character development for its protagonist, District 9 was a pretty good precedent to assume the next movie would be great, especially with a good actor like Matt Damon playing the leading role. Sadly, I ended up leaving the theater rather disappointed; I liked Elysium visually and enjoyed its world-building, but I felt the movie was badly let down by a somewhat bland story, heavy-handed social commentary, and, most critical in its failure to live up to the hopes District 9 had given me for the movie, an almost complete lack of interesting characters.

Elysium is set in the year 2154, where society has undergone a critical shift; massive overpopulation and pollution means that mankind has now split into the wealthy, who live on the idyllic space station of Elysium with advanced technology to attend to their every care and need, and the rest of the world, living on a filthy, poverty-riddled Earth that appears to have become one planet-wide slum. Our story follows the journey of Max (Matt Damon), an ex-car thief who once dreamed of going to Elysium with his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), but now tries to make ends meet working a grunt job in one of the earth-bound factories of an Elysian tech corporation. When unsafe work conditions and the carelessness of his employers leaves Max fatally poisoned by radiation with five days to live, however, Max embarks on a desperate attempt to reach Elysium and get access to their medical technology to save his life. In doing so, he crosses Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) a corrupt and merciless security official who believes in punishing illegal passage to Elysium with extreme prejudice, and “Agent Kruger” (Sharlto Copley), a depraved and sadistic mercenary in her employ.

At its core, Elysium is social commentary wrapped up in a science-fiction action movie to help it go down a little easier. It tackles growing classism and the underlying fear by “haves” that the “have-nots” demanding equality will endanger their way of life, the obsession with secure borders and harsh crackdown on illegal immigration, and the damage a callous world where people only look to their own needs and refuse to help others without profit will do to society. I felt, however, that the film suffered by approaching these various issues with the subtlety of a thrown brick; we’re never really shown if Elysium refusing to share all of its extremely advanced medical technology that will cure even terminal illness (and can possibly revive the recently deceased and hold off old age, depending on how some scenes are viewed) has any practical reasons, or if the rich are merely selfishly withholding technology that could change the world for the better because of their complete disregard for the poor on Earth. The immigration issue, a complicated and hotly-debated topic in real life, is here presented as a psychopath blowing civilian ships filled with sick women and children out of the sky on the government dime. Elysium features an extremely black-and-white outlook on the issues it covers, and while they are things we need to consider, failing to convey any sort of subtlety in presenting them to us hurts the film and makes it feel heavy-handed.

Beyond the social commentary that takes up the bulk of the movie’s efforts, the film holds up on world-building and action and falls down on story and especially on characters. Blomkamp manages to evoke strong reactions to the world his movie takes place in thanks to the “shantytown” aesthetic of Earth (we’re told the desiccated third-world-looking slum Max hails from is Los Angeles) compared to the clean, futuristic look of Elysium; the incredibly crowded, dirty, beaten-down atmosphere of the scenes on Earth can leave you feeling uncomfortable even before the social aspects set in. We see that with all the wealthy living in a utopia far away from earth, there is no concern at all for human safety anymore; there are robot police that seem pre-programmed towards police brutality, parole officers are robotic speakers that take little interest in the defendant’s side of the story, workplace safety is ignored (Max is told he will be fired if he doesn’t step into a radiation chamber to unjam the door, an event that could easily have gotten a part of his body crushed and ends up fatally irradiating him at the start of the movie), and injured workers are promptly fired and left to their fate by uncaring employers. This all creates very effective atmosphere, and in such a bleak, gritty environment, the visceral violence of the movie’s action scenes seems quite appropriate; you feel it when someone gets hurt in Elysium.

The story, however, is fairly bare-bones and seems mostly to be a delivery system for the social commentary, and the characters don’t add any sort of flavor to it because nearly all of them are non-entities. Matt Damon can’t be faulted on his acting, as he performs as well as ever, but the character of Max is boring and has very little to distinguish him; he seems to just be another victim of the system trying to change his luck after being beaten on for no reason again and again by the unfair society Elysium has created. Alice Braga similarly makes an effort with Frey, but there simply isn’t much to her character but a worried mother with the obligatory sick child and a love interest for Matt Damon. Sharlto Copley at least seems to be having fun with his role, but unfortunately he is merely a caricature here; Agent Kruger is overtly, cartoonishly evil, more of a cackling super-villain cutout than a character, and he’s burdened with a silly-sounding accent that sometimes makes his lines hard to understand. I can’t help that Elysium’s heavy-handed social commentary would have been far more palatable with a strong story and cast to go with it; District 9 hardly needed to be quiet in its denouncement of racism and apartheid policies, but the intense journey of Wikus as a character kept it quite interesting. Elysium doesn’t have a Wikus to come to its rescue, and the weak character writing means Matt Damon feels rather wasted on it.

All in all, I feel that Elysium has a good aesthetic going for it, and the social commentary it provides is relevant and includes things we ought to reflect on, but I think that the film’s lack of subtlety or ambiguity in delivering its views and the very thin plot and characters let it down. If you want to see Matt Damon throwing punches and firing guns in action scenes, there are better movies to do so in, and I can find little else to recommend Elysium on. If you’d like to see the world-building in action, I would recommend simply renting this one; otherwise, give it a miss.

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