“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.