Theatrical Review: Elysium

By the end of the 21st century, overpopulation and pollution have made conditions around the planet deplorable. The ruling bodies and rich upper class have retreated from Earth and now inhabit the orbiting space station known as Elysium. Elysium’s technology is so advanced that every home has a miraculous medical device in it that can literally cure anything. The space station wards off attempts at invasion by the lower class to get to that technology.

Max De Costa, was an orphan from the streets who grew up doing what he had to do to survive. As a young boy, he made a promise to his best friend, a girl named Frey, that one day he’d get them both to Elysium. Now, Max is doing his best to live a straight life; he works in a factory that builds service robots, but one day, Max gets trapped in a chamber that seals the robots with radiation and he’s exposed to a lethal dosage. Max has five days to live and now will do anything in an attempt to keep himself alive, including running a mission that will upset the balance of power with Elysium.

Elysium is writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his fantastic debut from a couple of years ago with the Oscar-nominated District 9. Blomkamp thrilled audiences with his socially-relevant tale of aliens who were segregated in South Africa’s Johannesburg, and audiences took note of his technical skill as well as the dramatic chops of actor Sharlto Copley. Blomkamp’s attempting to do the same thing with Elysium but with mixed results, though for the most part, I find the film to still be highly watchable.

With Elysium, Blomkamp handles his social issues and his characters in a much more simplistic way than he did in District 9, and this will no doubt be the dividing line for whether most will like the movie or not. The characters are all pretty much one-note, in particular the characters that are from Elysium, there’s a lot of science fiction cliches at work and there’s a lot of things that happen more due to story convenience than feeling natural. This feels more like juvenile science fiction than anything else (and I’m not using “juvenile” in a derogatory way here) and as such, it’s probably not going to strike most the same way that District 9 did.

Now to Blomkamp’s credit, the film has a fantastic look (very cool to see visual futurist Syd Mead credited for the concept illustrations), some really high-charged action scenes and visual effects, and it moves at a pretty brisk pace. This, at least to me, still made the film fun to watch even with it’s story and character simplicity.

Blomkamp’s cast includes Matt Damon as Max, Jodie Foster as Delacourt (the Secretary of Defense for Elysium), Sharlto Copley as Kruger (a deep cover Earth operative for Delacourt), Alice Braga as Max’s lifelong friend, Frey, William Fichtner as John Carlyle (the head of the company that Max works for) and Diego Luna and Wagner Moura as Julio and Spider respectively, two people who Max worked with when he was working outside the law. It’s a good cast, but they’re saddled with mostly one-note characters. Damon does his best to remain affable in a tough situation as well as doing a great job with the action scenes. Jodie Foster, at least to me, gives off some sort of sense that there’s something beneath her surface that absolutely believes that her ways of defending Elysium are the best ways. Sharlto Copley is a far cry from what he was in District 9 playing a very lethal character who’s just, well, insane with what he’s doing. Fichtner (a perennial favorite actor of mine) fares worse here with a character that’s even more one-note than what he played in the Lone Ranger, and yet I can’t blame him for that as I’m sure everyone here is just enforcing Blomkamp’s vision.

Even though I’m coming down on aspects of Elysium, I still had an enjoyable time watching it, but still it just could’ve been so much better thad Blomkamp invested a little more time into filling this out a bit more. Like I said above, if you look at this as pure juvenile science fiction, then it fares a lot better, but if you’re looking for something that’s going to be a good companion piece to District 9, I expect that you’ll find Elysium to be lacking.