What if Wall-E were real? That’s the question director Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp try to answer in Elysium. Actually, there have been plenty of films depicting world-ending scenarios this summer, nonetheless, this is the one that stars Matt Damon, so pay attention.
The word “Elysium” actually refers to a Greek notion of the afterlife where those chosen by the gods would spend eternity. Blomkamp’s Elysium reveals a similar idea with the ironic twist being that the “chosen few” are simply the world’s wealthiest and most privileged. Here Elysium is a space station constructed miles above Earth’s atmosphere designed to house the planet’s most fortunate, so that they can maintain their lavish lifestyle without the burdens of living on an overpopulated Earth. The year is 2154. Max (Damon) is an average guy living in L.A. who finds himself in a life or death situation that can only be cured by the advanced medical treatments available on Elysium. Elysium’s strict immigration laws prevent unauthorized travel to the haven, leaving Max to desperate measures.
Blomkamp’s film is wonderfully directed. With brilliant juxtapositions between Elysium and Earth, he designs a very well made story that looks all too real! Scenes of sweeping, Eden-esque beauty are shattered by guerrilla-style wildness of a civilization clinging to existence. Slightly reminiscent of Minority Report, Max’s humanity and loss thereof is accentuated with symbolic intensity and careful pacing. His decent into despair is marked by a crude cyborg-like surgical implant that Blomkamp uses to remind us of how close we are from becoming a race of data transfer capsules. The film’s various villains are united and yet compartmentalized representing a visionary balance of complexity that while slightly excessive could have been tremendously overbearing. Blomkamp’s previous film District 9 was in a similar topical vein, and while it was a better film overall than Elysium, this latest film is a finer directorial effort, perhaps worthy of Oscar’s attention, although unlikely given the film’s weaknesses in other areas.
Elysium’s main problem is in the writing. The problem is that Elysium should be more upsetting than it is. It attempts to invoke the spirit, the outrage, and the temperament of the Occupy Wall-Street movement, showing a wealthy 1% looking down on a struggling and desperate 99%. However, this is done in a rather heavy-handed way that comes across simplistic and, at times, stereotypically vapid. This is most apparent in examining Jodi Foster’s Secretary Delacourt who attempts to plan a coup for seemingly no better reason than because her fascist ways are more fascist than the current fascist in charge. Foster does her best with what she’s given, but a complicated issue is reduced to a shred of viability, turning what could have been a deeply stirring sci-fi commentary into just another by the numbers hero tale. Questions are left unanswered especially in the film’s closing act, which offers a naive and, while plausible, uneven resolution. Not to mention that the film fails to soften the reality that Damon, Blomkamp, and company are pandering to a low to middle class audience about the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I had a similar issue with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from earlier this Spring. This is the “Catch-22” of A-List Hollywood in the economically polarized 21st century.
Pompousness aside, Elysium offers a fast-paced, stirring, visually well-made exploration of a slice of humanity. While it may not accomplish what it set out to do contextually, it is still a worthy film deserving of some credence. B
Elysium is rated R and has a refreshingly appropriate running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes. While not the near masterpiece of sci-fi that was District 9, Elysium is a good summer movie and a great example of visionary directing.