Movie Review: ‘Elysium’


Plot:  In the year 2154 Earth has become an overpopulated, poor, and polluted police state.  Most muddle through a dismal existence trying to eek out a living.  For the financially bereft the dream inevitably involves a spot on Elysium, a highly advanced orbital space station where only the extremely wealthy live.  There’s no crime, war, or pollution on Elysium, and a highly advanced medical device can cure everything from a hangnail to leukemia.  And for Elysium’s Secretary of Defense administrator Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her cruel military agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley), they’ll do anything necessary to make sure the 1% always occupy Elysium.  For factory worker and ex-con Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), Elysium is a dream he gave up on years ago.  But when an accident at a factory exposes Max to a lethal dose of radiation, he turns to his criminal friends to get to the fabled space station.  However, Max soon discovers that his journey may not only save himself and his childhood friend Frey’s (Alice Braga’s) daughter from certain death, but could alter the course of every man, woman, and child on Earth.

Review:  Bad science fiction films annoy, good science fiction films merely entertain, but great science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner hold a mirror up to society and really make the viewer think.

Director Neil Blomkamp’s latest film Elysium falls into the third category.

One of  the best films I’ve seen so far this year, Elysium is a gritty, honest, and vicious look at a scarily plausible Earth of the future.  Filled with strong performances, intense action, and an underlying message that asks audiences to look beyond the surface, Elysium provokes societal scrutiny as well entertains.

Fans of Blomkamp’s first film District 9 are sure to enjoy his followup.  As with District 9, Blomkamp examines a larger social issue through the lens of science fiction.  However, whereas District 9 was an allegory of South Africa’s apartheid, Elysium examines the ever burgeoning gap between the haves and havenots in American society.  It’s a harrowing vision made real by a 22nd century Los Angeles that looks more like a third world Rio de Janeiro.  In point of fact, Blomkamp’s script seems to imply that most of the world has devolved into third world poverty.  (And in reality is that so beyond the scope of possibility?  Look at the severe poverty in the Ozarks.)  Earth dwellers have become plodding humans as expendable to the people of Elysium as their robot overseers.  While humans toil, executives reap higher bonuses and increase their stock options.  Meanwhile, residents of Earth are constantly being offered pills to calm down, amp up, or focus more on performing their menial jobs.  (Any of this starting to sound familiar?)

Damon’s Da Costa’s is another victim of the system.  Damon succeeds well in the role, totally immersing himself in Max.  He’s an ex-con trying to reform himself yet is constantly thwarted by the circumstances around him, whether it’s an uptight foreman, a violent police robot, or a snarky robot parole officer.  He also pines after his lost love Frey (Braga) who wants to distance herself from her old friend.  Braga’s performance is an understated yet entrancing role.  She’s a nurse who strives to bring good amidst the chaos while dealing with her daughter’s own personal sickness. Max unfortunately is just a reminder of a life she’d rather not go back to.

Ironically, Max considers himself a pretty average guy.  Yet average people can often be forced into extraordinary circumstances.  Max finds himself in just such a spot when he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and implores  his old boss Spider (Wagner Moura) to help him get to Elysium.  But Spider’s plan quickly becomes an amazing opportunity.  I don’t want to ruin the plot so suffice it to say that nothing less than the future of the human race is at stake.

I don’t mean to make it sound like Elysium is one long diatribe about financial disparity, the greed of executives, or the dangers of pollution and overpopulation.  Far from it.  The action in Elysium is a heart pounding adrenaline rush that grips you by the throat.  Once Max is modified by an exo-suit that vastly increases his strength, speed, and stamina, the intensity really kicks in.  The fights between Max and Kruger are epic.  Copley’s Kruger is a malevolent, murdering sociopath that will make you completely forget about his mild mannered and sympathetic role in District 9.  In fact Kruger in many ways is the embodiment of the ugliness of 22nd century society.

Visually Elysium is stunning.  The third world nature of mid 22nd century Los Angeles is equally as impressive as the sleek, futuristic look of Elysium. The visual wizards behind Elysium realize Blomkamp’s vision on every level, creating a futuristic Earth that is as believable as it is visually

I have only two real complaints about Elysium.  Trent Opaloch’s camerawork is extremely shaky at times, to the point where I had to look away a few times.  I feel Elysium would have been much better served if many of the shots were more fluid.  Secondly, Jodie Foster kind of disappointed as Delacourt.  In no way was Foster bad, but I think she could have pushed the character a little bit further.  And her pseudo-French accent was laughable.

Elysium is an intriguing, introspective, and visually stunning sophomore effort by director Neil Blomkamp, one that I will be thinking about for weeks to come.

My rating:  9/10