Niell Blomkamp (with some assistance from Peter Jackson) redefined contemporary sci-fi with sleeper hit District 9, adding a gritty, documentary-like flavor to what essentially was a morality play. Now back with a far more massive budget, A-list talent, and a theme – increasing classism in American society combined with the yawning wealth gap – that’s never been more relevant, the South African director attempts to win over casual moviegoers and geeks alike once more.


Matt Damon
Jodie Foster
Sharlto Copley
Alice Braga
William Fichtner


Neill Blomkamp


9th August, 2013


109 minutes


Set in 2154, when the overpopulated, polluted, and generally resource-starved Earth has been left to the proverbial 99% and the super-rich have all moved into the titular utopian space station (which looks like a remarkable mix of Beverly Hills and French Riviera), Elysium isn’t a cautionary tale as much as it is a commentary on the real-life present. And as far as accolades go, that’s about all it has in common with Blomkamp’s previous release.


The docu-drama storytelling has been replaced with a more conventional action-based setup, centering around Max (Matt Damon), a struggling robot machinist who resolves to illegally migrate to Elysium where he can instantly cure himself of the radiation poisoning from an industrial accident. And perhaps for the first time, and despite turning in a typically solid performance, Damon has flopped as the lead in a major box-office film.


For one thing, he’s too powerfully built as an adult to be convincing as this emaciated, sickly street kid picked up by the nuns in the prologue scenes interspersed throughout the narrative. And while he portrays the raw desperation of a dying man quite well, Damon can’t quite pull off the inner moral conflict his character experiences as he balances the selfish need for self preservation against the arguably more pressing needs of others. Rookie Ryan Amon’s adequate-but-unspectacular score underlines the imbalance: too much industrial-electro and not enough depth.


Superficially, this character arc strongly resembles Copley’s Wikus in District 9, as Max gradually claws himself up on to a higher moral plane and comes to accept his inevitable fate. But Wikus’s struggle was palpable and heartrending, while Max’s inner conflict doesn’t really resonate in the same way, a combination of both performance deficiencies and plot mechanics.


Thankfully, the rest of the cast is more dynamic. Jodie Foster is delicious as the stern Defense Secretary Delacourt, and my goodness, Sharlto Copley (playing the villainous rogue agent Kruger) is an absolute delight to watch. A combustible mix of violent disposition and questionable upbringing, Kruger’s action sequences are gleefully thrilling and his scenes with Frey (Alice Braga) – a childhood friend of Max – and her daughter are downright creepy.


Ironically, even though Elysium has more plot closure than District 9, audiences will actually feel less satisfied. That’s because the resolution of rich-vs-poor battle is underwhelming and predictable. What viewers need today is reconciliation and understanding, not victory of the masses over the elite, snobbish, and greedy capitalists. That’s how one-sided and lacking in nuance Blompkamp’s vision is. Profit is the only motive, and genuine concerns of the wealthy are nothing compared to hunger, disease, and physical discomfort.


In comic terms, there is so much untapped potential, especially when you have programmed robots in charge of the entire law-and-order and criminal justice system. We get a taste of it in a conversation Max has with a “parole officer”, but following that the droids are basically relegated to the background, doing grunt work as foot-soldiers and guards but not much talking. Even abject poverty can be a gold mine of humor, as Charlie Chaplin has so timelessly demonstrated, but we get nothing from the writers here.


The ghetto scenes were mostly filmed in the slums of Mexico, so it’s not surprising how convincing it is as a run-down future Los Angeles. West Coast audiences, especially those who remember the tension in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots in the early 90s should relate to it very well. One of the few positives is that in meta terms, Elysium is a striking metaphorical depiction of the southwestern United States.


It’s probably unfair to draw too many comparisons with District 9, but the similarities are so obvious that not doing so would be disingenuous. Basically if you like endless shots of shuttles hovering over shantytowns and cool weaponry, then prepare for an epic orgasm; if not, then I’m afraid an unmemorable and emotionally bankrupt tale awaits you.





Responses (3)

  1. Good review. I didn't care for the film because there were no heroic characters to root for, except for Damon's character. All of the other characters, except for the victimized woman and her child, are mean-spirited and vile. Ultimately there is nothing except for spectacular visual effects to enjoy in the extremely negative story, which will make most people feel depressed and glad when it's over.

  2. It's as much of a downer as Ridley Scott's empty blockbuster PROMETHEUS (2012) last year. By the end of the movie, almost everybody in the story has been killed.

  3. I am going to see GRAVITY this weekend. Will probably give it a review in about a month, after most people have had a chance to see it.

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