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Review

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: A Review of Elysium


“Enjoyed” may be the wrong word to describe how viewers might feel about Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore sci-fi jaunt, Elysium. “Experienced” would be more apt, for this gritty dystopian vision is a tough one, hard on the eyes and adrenal system, if not much on the heart. A highly explosive action-adventure, Elysium falls prey to genre tropes more often than it blows past them, making for a well-crafted, if somewhat standard, feature. Unlike the allegorically stronger structure of Blomkamp’s big splash into Hollywood, District 9, this follow-up is thematically weaker and less substantial. It may reach for the stars, but Elysium, unfortunately, falls under its setup’s own weight.

Wealthy and privileged SPOILERS are protected beneath the cut.

The year is 2154, and the world has become polarized between the poor, who must inhabit an overcrowded, polluted Earth, and the incredibly wealthy, who dwell on an idyllic paradise of a space station called Elysium. There, everyone lives in modern mansions with shimmering swimming pools, enjoying near-magical healthcare in the form of their MedBay machines that can instantly cure any illness or injury.

Down on Earth, a former car thief with a heat of gold named Max (Matt Damon) has given up his life of crime for a spot at a factory, where he helps build the same police droids that menace him on the way to work. After a factory accident leaves him fatally dosed with radiation, Max has five days to live and a new determination to make it to Elysium, whatever the cost. These ironies, which emphasize the cruel nature of Max’s world—as well as setting a clock on the narrative—also contribute to the heavy-handed feel of the movie. For Max, and for everyone, class is a black-and-white existence, a truth that rings falsely when set up to such extremes without thorough explanation.

Sights set on Elysium, Max allows himself to be drawn into a scheme set up by local gangster Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for his fare. Bolted flesh-and-bone into an exosuit to stay upright, Max, along with Spider’s henchmen, must grab a citizen of Elysium and download his brain data into Max’s new in-head gear. Max selects his former boss, one John Carlyle (Willian Fichtner), as the mark, and they’re off and running in one of many distractions from the narrative’s main event.

Meanwhile, on Elysium, cold-blooded Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is ready to shoot any illegal immigration attempts out of the sky and is fed up with being held back by a President who wants a more subtle approach. (Why this is necessary, when her methods seem harsh, yet effective for their purposes, is never explored.) With the man who wrote the core control system for Elysium, Carlyle, Delacourt plans a technological coup that would reboot Elysium’s computer and install her as the new, unimpeded President. When Spider’s mission, and the hijacking of Carlyle’s brain data, interrupts her plans, she sets her most ruthless sleeper agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), on Max’s trail.

Delacourt’s hunger for power, relinquished in a later scene when, horribly injured, she gives up entirely rather than fighting to survive, is as mysterious as any other background motivation in the film. For all of the characters there remains a certain emptiness, making it difficult to build up sufficient care for what happens to them. Max, played with earnestness by Mr. Damon, doesn’t change so much as become a reactive cipher to what is happening to him. The same could be said of everyone, from Foster to the manic Copley. It’s a clear example of how, though writer-director Blomkamp remains a firm hand in the directing chair, his writing chops could use more strength.

Nevertheless, Foster has a good time as Delacourt, despite not bringing a memorable touch to the role beyond a confusing accent. She could have been a worthy enough villain if the script had kept her as the primary menace instead of wildly shifting its focus to Kruger. An actor of Foster’s talents, as in the case of Damon, needs to be written and directed with more panache, and where Blomkamp succeeds with action and atmosphere, he fails at when it comes to emotions and connection with character.

Foster is offset by an equally one note, though far less impressive, female character, a nurse named Frey (Alice Braga) who was a childhood friend—and crush—of Max’s. Frey has a young daughter in the final stages of leukemia and is as desperate as anyone else to get to Elysium. For helping to Max while he is wounded she is rewarded with kidnapping, trauma, and not one but two would-be rapists. She does little else in the film except protectively hold her daughter, emphasizing her place as the woebegone mother figure, when it would have been more interesting to have her, or indeed, any other white-hat woman in the film (there are no others even shown), in a stronger role. The character is not to blame, being a construct of the writer; in this case, a victim of Blomkamp’s desire to have a symbol for good, rather than a person of autonomous action.

It is setting in particular to which Blomkamp applies his particular flavor this go-around, and Elysium is full of grand visuals, from the horrid, desert-overrun slums of a future Los Angeles to the palatial riches of Elysium. The film has realistic dirt under its nails and blood splattering its walls, aided by Blomkamp’s flinch-inducing approach to violence. Tension is kept high as stick-it grenades splatter humans left and right, and every body on the screen seems at risk for anatomically accurate mauling. Aiding the feelings of bodily vulnerability and realism are the top-notch visual effects, which are seamless and well-integrated into the film.

However, vivid details and fast, heart-pumping action are not enough to bolster the unsatisfying conclusion to this ride. As the third act turns into a drawn-out chase sequence, what could have been the more significant parts of script fall away. The largely insufficient climax comes down to two guys with exosekeleton suits bolted to their flesh battling it out in hand-to-hand combat while cherry blossoms float by for contrast. Just after, the hero sacrifices himself so that the computer records can be changed and all people made a “citizen” of Elysium and receive access to their medical care. It’s an overly simplistic Hollywood end to what could have been a far more nuanced, interesting feature. It may not be fair to compare Blomkamp’s two releases, this one and District 9. Yet it’s hard not to when the first used its aliens-as-apartheid-sufferers idea to such great effect. Elysium, on the other hand, has plenty of juicy subject matter (futuristic class warfare!) that it doesn’t exploit. When confronted with the temptations of Hollywood, it’s hard to say no, even if it does make for more cooks in the kitchen, and perhaps less control over one’s art. Blomkamp doesn’t let Elysium go completely, but his grip is less sure than it was. Ironically, money may have gotten to Blomkamp in this case, as sure as it got to the fictional tribe orbiting his desolated planet Earth.

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  • Anonymous

    I didn’t like a lot of it for the same reason I didn’t like District 9. We get it. You’re so clever for using sci-fi elements and a white protagonist as stand-ins for real world class and racial issues. We get it it. Go to the front of the class.

  • jdhovland

    Very good review that captured most of what I felt. After leaving the theater the movies that seemed it cribbed scenes or themes from were: Johnny Mnemonic, both Total Recalls, Time Machine and Fight Club.

  • http://www.damanique.net Damanique

    I wish I could’ve seen the futuristic class warfare in a movie adaptation of Battle Angel Alita. Instead, it has apparently turned into Elysium, featuring a straight white dude. Darn.

  • Samuel

    Take Battle Angel Alita. Delete the titular heroine. Focus the movie on her exosuit-wearing ex-con with a heart of gold boyfriend: Figure Four. That’s Elysium in a nutshell. Matt Damon is Figure Four. The suit even looks like Four’s Rent-A-Gun Pack.

  • http://www.commonplacebook.com electrasteph

    I got a lot of pushback about my critique of the casting choices when the movie was being promoted – it seems like in the final analysis my critique holds up – it would have been a more interesting film if the genders of the protagonist and villain were flipped, and if the protagonist wasn’t white.

  • Jim

    Did I have a mini-stroke or did Foster’s lip and dialogue not match more than half the time? Maybe it was a redub issue because she really seemed to struggle with her accent when speaking English.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree on the Frey character, I think she had the most depth of any of the films other “robots”. The end, where the hero must sacrifice his life to allow downloading of data from his brain is plain ridiculous. There’s no explanation as to why William Fichtner’s character would allow it to be transferred from his brain to Damon’s but not Damon’s to another, and meanwhile people were able to view it while still in Damon’s head anyway… Its hard to imagine how earth could be so overpopulated when healthcare was all but non-existent, nor why there’d be med-bay’s a plenty on EMS shuttles but a company wouldn’t keep one at a dangerous factory, or at a hospital. The movie was a mess, from script to acting to directing, I felt like I was watching a B movie from the 80′s except for the occasionally impressive special effects.

  • Ross Van Loan

    Apparently Mr. Avatar Cameron possesses the rights to Battle Angel. I’m hoping that he incorporates it into the Avatar series : that particular brain harvesting 1% society would really make sure that we understand that Humanity is eeeeeviiilllll!

  • Calum Syers

    I do love me some Sharlto Copley, but I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do when he’s out from Blomkamp’s umbrella.

  • http://www.damanique.net Damanique

    Oh my god I hadn’t even picked up on that, ARGH

  • jdhovland

    You get Mad Murdock in the A-team, not that that’s a bad thing, I enjoy his acting immensely too.

  • Calum Syers

    He made that film watchable. Make sure to check out “Europa Report”, which is a nifty little sci-fi film.

  • Ashe

    I liked District 9, but I was more engaged with Christopher and his son then the, uh, subtle allegories to race and class. If the movie had centered on them more, I think it would’ve actually been something truly great.

  • Ashe

    I wish Frey had been the main character. The whole movie about her fighting to save her daughter’s life while navigating the intersectionality of class, race and gender would have been far more compelling than Matt Damon: He Died For Our Sins.

    She could’ve donned a robo-suit, too!

  • Ashe

    Y’know…I noticed this too.

  • Ashe

    In my very rare defense of this movie (I agree with you on everything else), we don’t know how populated the Earth is. Most of what we see takes place in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.

    Not to mention there are many places today that don’t have good healthcare that still have a large population.

  • Beanie

    Yeah I noticed it during the part she speaks to Patel, after shooting down the 2 Space-Shuttles trying to enter Elysium.

  • Anonymous

    True.

  • Brian

    French, I guess? She spoke French a few times.

  • Brian

    I assume the reason they didn’t shoot the illegal immigrant ships out of the sky as a matter of course is the same reason we don’t have a border fence loaded with INS agents ordered to shoot on sight. People don’t like that kind of thing. And they had robots on the ground more or less as soon as the last ship landed, so Patel’s method seemed effective enough.

  • Leslee Bottomley Beldotti

    Did anyone else notice during the scene in which Max and his pig-tailed buddy attack John Carlyle’s transport vehicle, there is an overhead shot that showed A WHITE HORSE STANDING NEXT TO THEIR CAR?

    It was only for a brief moment, and only in that one overhead shot. But the horse (or maybe white goat?) was unmistakable.

    Wondering if anyone else knows what the heck THAT was about?

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    “There’s no explanation as to why William Fichtner’s character would
    allow it to be transferred from his brain to Damon’s but not Damon’s to
    another”

    Huh? Because if it’s just in Damon’s head, he can’t do anything with it, but if he can upload it to Elysium’s mainframe, he can reconfigure society at will. It’s like DRM: you can copy the data, but if you try to play it on another computer, it won’t work or it will infect the computer.

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    I remember a white antelope painted on the side of Sharlto Copley’s transport vehicle, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    I got more of a Metropolis vibe. Isn’t the point of Time Machine that the Eloi are actually chattel for the Morlocks, rather than their elite masters?

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    Check out Europa Report. He’s good in it.

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    Are you saying District 9 should have had a black protagonist? Doesn’t that smack of shifting the blame for apartheid? Like “Hey, look how racist this black guy is! He sure does represent everything wrong with prejudice in our modern society!”

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    I agree that generally, we need more diverse protagonists. But in this film, I think the casting is significant to the overarching theme, rather than just representative of marketing cowardice. If the protagonist is a white guy, the moral is “Hey white guys! You should sacrifice your life for people who are different from you, because in the end, you’re all in the same boat.” If Frey were the protagonist, the moral would be “Hey Hispanic women! You should sacrifice your life for the life of your child, because in the end, that’s just what you do.” If nothing else, that treads dangerously close to an anti-abortion message. And whom does that leave to raise her daughter? Spider’s gang of violent criminals?

  • Anonymous

    WOW. I mean it’s one thing to dislike the movie but come on. Blomkamp made a big budget summer movie. I would say that the film didn’t nail the concept as I would have hoped it would, but for what it ended up being it was decent.

  • Leslee Bottomley Beldotti

    I saw the painting of the white antelope (goat?) on the side of Sharlto’s vehicle as well. But no, this was an actual real (or meant to look real) animal standing next to Max’s car in an overhead shot.

    It was so out of place and weird that I thought perhaps the director put it there as an inside joke or something…

  • jdhovland

    True. I was just thinking about the unwashed below and the pretty up high.

  • Ashe

    I can dislike a movie and leave it at that. What he explored ‘conceptually’, however, is a real issue that’s affecting not just me but a lot of people I know. That he explored it *so* poorly and with so much money really, really irritates me.

    It’s like The Help, but with modern healthcare and immigration in place of racism. It’s a well-intentioned big budget flick that actually adds to the problem.

  • Ashe

    Hispanic women do get typecast as caretakers (when they’re not house maids or spicy love interests), but it still would’ve been progress.

    It still would’ve been a Hispanic woman as the lead in a big budget movie. We just plain don’t see that very often in the U.S.. White guys? Way, way, way, way, way too often.

    And if I can ask, how does a mother saving her kid tread close to an anti-abortion message? We don’t know much about her kid or her history to say anything on that matter.

  • Anonymous

    It wouldn’t have been like shifting the blame for the apartheid. It would have been a movie about intolerance and racism just the same. Bullies are bullies, and sometimes they’ve been bullied themselves but look around the world, that doesn’t stop them from being bullies anyway.

    It would have been an interesting twist, like it was having a Jewish character, in the original mini V, become a collaborator and bully scientists around, even if his grandmother died in a concentration camp. Irony, you know. Something scifi could use.

  • http://taste-is-sweet.livejournal.com/ Aundrea Singer

    I believe Magic Xylophone meant that the idea of a mother dying for her child could be taken as a statement that a baby is more important than the woman who has the baby, and therefore it’s more moral for the woman to die to save the child than the reverse.

    I can see how a certain segment of viewers might take that to mean the film is giving tacit support to anti-abortionists, but as a parent I know that I’d die for my kid in a heartbeat if I had to.

    I’m with you that just having a non-white protagonist would have been amazing, let alone a *female*, non-white protagonist. If anything, it would have made the comparisons to modern America more obvious, which might not have been a bad thing.

  • River

    YES. You nailed it.

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    Jewish collaborators with the Nazis isn’t a reversal of historical fact. It’s a thing that happened. And having a character betray their own kin has different connotations than having a character subjugate a different genetically distinct underclass.

    If a black South African is the primary representative of systemic racism in a film that derives much of its power by evoking recent systemic racism against black South Africans, it just seems woefully out of touch. The primary subtext wouldn’t come across as “Racism is bad,” it would come across as “See? Black people are just as racist as white people.” Is that really the most important issue for the film to address? How gosh darned racist those black folks are? And how about the fact that he turns into an alien? People got mad enough at Disney for turning their first black protagonist’s dark skin slimy green for half of The Princess and the Frog, despite it ultimately leading to the fulfillment of her personal goals. Can you imagine how much more outrage it would attract if this trope was used to teach the character a lesson about racial tolerance?

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    “It still would’ve been a Hispanic woman as the lead in a big budget movie. We just plain don’t see that very often in the U.S.. White guys? Way, way, way, way, way too often.”

    Yes, as I said. We need more POC protagonists. But why should the protagonist of this particular film be a Hispanic woman? What message would that convey within this specific context? All that stuff the nun tells the protagonist about “everyone has a purpose in life. A mission they were born for,” what does it mean if that mission is “die for the sake of your child?” When in the real world have representatives of the Catholic Church told women they should take every measure to preserve their offspring, no matter the risk to their own life?

  • Ashe

    The topics that this movie explores disproportionately affect the Hispanic population in America. Hispanic women are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to pay equity and education, as well. So, to have this issue portrayed through the lens of a Hispanic woman, of which these issues will definitely affect the worst, makes more sense. Though to some, it’s not very…palatable.

    Also, there’s no reason that nun couldn’t have her dialogue tweaked, too. Maybe something more along the lines of, “Everyone has a mission in life-one that you choose for yourself.” or some such other. To avoid unfortunate implications, like you mentioned with conservative religion and general stereotypes.

    Since, yeah, that would be pretty awful to keep…

  • Ashe

    Yeah. I’m now seeing the unfortunate implications with that. It’s not a bad trope to explore, but that it’s overdone (with liberal sprinkles of Damsel In Distress and Love Interest) just oozes a conservative stink.

    And it definitely wouldn’t have been a bad thing. I highly support more uncomfortable shifting-in-seats and awkward silences in theaters.

    :D

  • Anonymous

    Yet another film with a socialist agenda.
    Blomkamp should have pushed ahead with the “Halo” movie.
    District 9′s script and plot made no sense by the way.

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    It might be more accurate, but it wouldn’t make more sense dramatically. What little depth the central character has comes from the conflict between his own interests (reinforced by economics), and the wellbeing of others (reinforced by religion). He starts out concerned for himself, and unwilling to risk his goals to help out Frey’s daughter. But in the end, he decides to sacrifice everything for her sake, recalling that it was Frey who originally instilled him with a sense of purpose in his youth, giving him hope by teaching him about Elysium. What’s the character arc if Frey is the protagonist? “Nah, I think I’ll let my kid die, it’s too complicated to save her. Oh, wait, now that I remember that time I taught some white boy to read (or are you cutting most of the flashback sequence as well?), and a nun told me I have a mission in life that I should choose for myself, I’ve decided I will save my kid after all.”

    It would take a lot more than tweaking a line of dialogue for a Frey-centric version of Elysium to work. Frey couldn’t be a nurse, for one thing. She’d have to be an ex-con car thief like Max was, or Spider wouldn’t give her the opportunity to steal the data in the first place. So now she’s a mother who spent years in prison. Who took care of her daughter during that time? The father? Then he’s the primary caretaker of the girl, and if the character dynamic between Frey and Max is kept, only with her in his role, that means the father is the one telling her she needs to look out for her child. So now you’ve got a movie with a message to Hispanic women that they shouldn’t be deadbeat moms. Or that they should listen to their baby-daddies and sacrifice themselves to preserve their offspring, and we’re back to the anti-abortion thing.

    Or are we scrapping the protagonist’s internal conflict altogether, making the movie even more shallow and propagandistic? Or are we coming up with a completely new backstory and internal conflict, thus rewriting most of the film? In which case, why not just make a different scifi action thriller with a Hispanic female protagonist?

  • Anonymous

    That’s a good point. I don’t think anyone is immune to intolerance though sadly. I think that should be a lesson worth learning by everyone. The things that come out of people’s mouth when the gay marriage come up for example is scary when you consider some of these people have been fighting for acceptance for generations.