ELYSIUM is no DISTRICT 9. It’s not DISTRICT 10 either, or DISTRICT 11 for that matter, or even DISTRICT 43 1/2. I know that should go without saying, but, because Neill Blomkamp already has one phenomenal piece of sci-fi under his belt with his 2009 feature film debut, it’s human nature to think he’s going to try to follow the formula of that success by doing something similar with its follow-up. However, ELYSIUM doesn’t make any sort of attempt to be anything close to DISTRICT 9, so any type of notion that this new film isn’t that one is ludicrous. Blomkamp once again aims to use science fiction as a vehicle to make a statement about the world we live in – using the circumstances of his characters to deliver a political message about the present day. That’s what I love about this guy. He’s not just making films that look cool, which they do, but he’s using his platform to also say something, to make you think, to forward the conversation about where we are. In that respect, he takes a page out of the DISTRICT 9 playbook, trading in xenophobia and racism for class warfare, abuse of power, immigration and healthcare. However, ELYSIUM uses such broad strokes to touch upon such nuanced and important topics, simplifying their debates to an “us versus them” approach eliminating any of the necessary intelligence from them. As a result, we get a message that doesn’t matter nearly as much as it should, polluted by conventional character tropes and poorly written dialogue that it’s quite difficult to see the forest of such meaningful topics among such dumb trees. However, an engaging performance by Matt Damon as the film’s hero and an even better one by Sharlto Copley who puts the fun of this movie on his back as a superb villain make ELYSIUM fun enough to trump some of the less flattering aspects of Blomkamp’s film.
ELYSIUM takes place in 2154, at a time when there is no such thing as a third world country, because Earth has effectively become a third world planet. It is diseased, polluted and overpopulated with a place like Los Angeles looking like the worst of the worst when it comes to post-apocalyptic locations. However, with the world in such dire straits, Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have flown the coop, pooling their money together to build a habitat out in space named Elysium. After all, you didn’t expect them to stick around and see how the situation they had a hand in creating was going to turn out, did you? The divide between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider, with the rich able to heal themselves using med-banks that can fix anything from a skin blemish to cancer while down on Earth, the sick are left to suffer and/or die. It’s on this ravaged picture of Earth that we find Max (Matt Damon), a tattooed ex-felon trying to go straight, leaving his past of grand theft auto and assault behind, in order to work the line at the factory, constructing the very droids that police what the planet has become. However, through a poor framing device that shows Max as a young orphan, we learn that he may be destined for some type of greatness in his life, some extraordinary thing that may happen to him along the way… and so it comes to pass that when Max is hit with a full dose of radiation at the plant and given only five days left to live, he can either take his meds and fade away as they expect him to, or he can do everything in his power to find a way up to Elysium to solve this lethal problem facing him, including attaching an exo-skeleton to his weakened body.
However, this is not going to be an easy task. After all, the haves really don’t want the have-nots anywhere near there airspace. They’ll go as far as shooting down shuttles trying to illegally cross their borders into Elysium in order to protect their way of life, which equates to not wanting the sick or the poor around. Most of this attitude is carried by Defense Secretary Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster in one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen her turn in. This is a rare egg for the multiple Oscar winner to lay, but it’s the strangely indecipherable accent, which seems like a cross between French, American and wealthy, not to mention the fact that she might as well have a curly handlebar mustache to twirl while she’s tying some damsel in distress to the train tracks… that’s how over the top ridiculous her villain is. I get that Blomkamp wants what amounts to the 1% to be see as heartless and evil, but there’s no subtlety to the characterizations he uses, undermining the film’s intentions in regards to their motives. It’s even hard to build William Fichtner as a credible bad guy this time around as the head of the Armadyne Corporation. This guy is so uncaring that he wants Damon’s Max removed from the plant’s infirmary quickly after his accident, because having to change the bedding he’s laying on may cut into their profitability. There’s nothing all that interesting about either more than corporations bad, neo-con government bad… and while I’m not saying I disagree with such a political stance, when it comes to making a compelling movie, such stereotypes aren’t all that exciting.
What is far more thrilling though is the incorporation of Sharlto Copley as a sleeper agent named Kruger, tasked with eliminating any threats that may arise to those on Elysium. Kruger is a bad man, someone who takes pleasure in harming others, and when he’s called into action to stop intruders from reaching Elysium or to reacquire stolen information, he loves his job, with his smile growing bigger the more punishment he gets to dish out. He’s on the job when Max accepts an offer to complete a heist in order to punch his ticket up to Elysium. The job, absurd in nature involving downloads of brain data – yes, you heard that correctly… brain data – goes bad, and Max is on the run with a package of information he shouldn’t have, information that could prove dangerous to the people of Earth if it fell into the wrong hands, which is exactly who it was meant for… and Kruger is hard after to retrieve it. There may be far less creativity put into the creation of Kruger, but he’s much more fun to watch. Sometimes villains are just bad seeds, and he is a psychotic one. It’s disturbing to watch how much joy he gets out of hurting people, but it sets up a nice foil for Max who has his own selfish interests in mind until he later comes to realize just how much power he wields with the data he holds in his head. It’s a nice transformation that Damon’s likability is able to pull off without a problem, but it helps to have a strong bad guy to stand opposite. It gives you a reason to root for Max on something more than principle or ideology. Copley represents the greatest, and most deranged, obstacle Max will have to overcome in order to achieve his goals, and him relishing his position as such is what makes ELYSIUM as entertaining as it manages to be.
Blomkamp still has a knack for world building, creating both a run-down Earth and a sparkling and shiny Elysium that we can recognize from our own everyday headlines, but it’s the characters that populate ELYSIUM that don’t quite do the trick. The film should be a lot smarter than it is, but Blomkamp’s script really dumbs down the complex issues it’s dealing far too frequently. It never lets the conversation elevate to anything substantial, because even the characters that live in this world he’s created have nothing intelligent to say. It’s much too basic for a film dealing with such big ideas. It’s a good thing ELYSIUM has a couple strong performances going for it, in addition to its bursts of intense violence which up the film’s cool factor on the action front. Otherwise, this picture would be far more lost. It is a bit disappointing to see Blomkamp take such a sizable step back from his rookie effort, but there is enough in ELYSIUM to entertain. Smart sci-fi this is not, but thanks to Damon and Blomkamp, I couldn’t help but enjoy large chunks of the film.