In 2009, writer/director Neill Blomkamp got the film world’s attention with District 9, a powerful sci-fi allegory that examined the vagaries of Apartheid that plagued his native South Africa. Inventive, uncompromising and a reminder that the best futuristic fiction deals with issues of today, the movie ended up scoring an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and set the bar high for the director’s next project.
Expectations have been running high for that film, Elysium. The summer has been devoid of big budget films that actually have something to say. The movie takes on the ever-widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, the disparity in health care coverage and the problem of illegal immigration. Each of these subjects are worthy of a pointed big screen indictment and the director does a fine job here driving home the most obvious points; however, these themes become obscured by Blomkamp’s inclusion of standard action film elements.
From Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis to last year’s Total Recall, the premise of a society drastically divided by class has been a model for many dystopian science fiction stories. Elysium takes place in the mid-22nd century and Earth has become diseased and overpopulated. The one percent has left terra firma behind and resides on Elysium, a rotating space station where they live in palatial splendor, work is nonexistent and disease is obliterated through advanced medical technology. Everyone else has been left on a planet that’s been overrun by despair and poverty. Max (Matt Damon, giving another fine performance) is a cog in the corporate machine doing his best to survive. Living in a hovel on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which now looks like a third-world country (many of these scenes were shot in Mexico), he has an assembly line job that puts him in grave danger every day. Still, he knows he’s lucky to be employed and senses a ray of hope in his personal life when he’s reunited with his childhood friend and would-be girlfriend Frey (Alice Braga).
However, tragedy strikes when Max is exposed to a deadly level of radiation while on the job and is told he only has five days to live. Reasoning that he has little to lose, he agrees to go to Elysium at the behest of Spider (Wagner Moura), a black marketer who outfits him with a metal exoskeleton and brain interface that will allow him to carry vital information that’s been obtained, to the station that will lead to its downfall. As if traveling to this outpost isn’t dangerous enough, Max has Frey and her daughter, who’s suffering from leukemia, in tow hoping to find a cure for the young girl’s condition.
There’s much more at play here, which is part of the film’s problem. Jodie Foster, sporting one of the worst film accents in recent memory, is featured as Elysium’s ramrod Defense Secretary Delacourt, a French diplomat who’s planning a coup of the idyllic civilization, while a barely recognizable Sharlto Copley is Kruger, a soldier of fortune who helps her get things done. That Max and this brute end up going mano a mano during the film’s climax isn’t so much a surprise as it is a profound disappointment.
Equally troubling are the numerous narrative gaffes that result in our scoffing at many key elements in the story. Max endures far more than any man should be able. Also, Blomkamp should be praised for tackling the illegal immigration issue, but I couldn’t help but wonder why the folks at Elysium didn’t take steps to make it more difficult for unwanted visitors from dropping by. And the reason for Kruger’s abduction of Frey and her daughter late in the film is predicated by narrative convenience alone.
In the end, Elysium isn’t nearly as smart as it thinks or as I hoped it would be, which is a shame. Blomkamp is obviously a director with a vital agenda of issues he wishes to cover. Here’s hoping he regains the nerve to examine them as they should be and eschews the action film tropes that obscure them here.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.