Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
Review by Joshua Starnes
Set in the year 2159, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.
Fans and creators of sci-fi love to talk about the power of the genre being in its ability to use analogy to depict our current, using its fantastic backdrop to push modern mores and conventional wisdom to extremes in order to test how accurate or worthwhile they really are. When done well it does work, but the problem with a message built on going to extremes is that extremes are very hard to make believable and very easy to get away from a storyteller for just that reason. Case in point: Neil Blomkamp's "Elysium," or what I like to call 'when bad analogies happen to good filmmakers."
About a century from now rabid overpopulation has reduced much of the Earth to a third-world slum, with not enough food, medicine or hope to go around. The richest one percent, seeing this coming, have pooled their resources and built their own space station - Elysium - where they live in mostly ignorant luxury and indolence, leaving people like car-thief gone straight Max (Matt Damon) to fend for themselves.
Which is all well and good, as far as it goes. Blomkamp's visual creation of an Earth falling apart (focused, like any good Hollywood film should be, on the urban hell of Los Angeles) is a feast, telling you all you need to know about the world people like Max live in and why they would be willing to take their chances to attempt to fly up to Elysium on illegal shuttles in an attempt to partake of the wonders of civilization horded there. Wonders like medical beds that can instantly heal anything up to and including a grenade to the face.
And then the harsh Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster), who seems at least partially based on Christine Lagarde, orders the ships full of illegal's to be shot down on their way up and the film begins its long slow slide into ridiculousness.
Part of that is because Blomkamp obviously has a better feel for the down-trodden Earth he has created, partly because much of it is recreated from some of his previous shorts over the year's right down to the brutal obnoxious robot police force which for some reason has been programmed to act exactly brutal obnoxious human police officers.
In fact most of the downtrodden of Earth are treated at arm's length, when treated at all, by robots and mechanisms, built by the likes of billionaire John Carlyle (William Fichtner) who somehow manages to stay a billionaire by selling everything he makes to Elysium (which he built) seeing as the bulk of 'consumers' live in abject poverty and can't possibly afford anything he makes.
For the most part though, little things like that can be forgiven - initially - as Blomkamp builds his world around Max, an everyman trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Then Max gets hit by a blast of deadly radiation and has only five days to live at which point nothing seems over the top to him, including getting bolted into a cybernetic exoskeleton and a computer drive inserted in his head if it will get him up to Elysium and one of the magic healing pods.
This is good and bad news. On the one hand it is when Blomkamp really gets into his action movie element as Max and a gang of ne'er-do-wells attempt to kidnap Carlyle and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a power struggle by Foster and her top goon (District 9's Sharlto Copley as a crazed super-soldier) who are attempting to reboot Elysium's computer in order to tell it she is the president in some sort electronic coup [see she hates politicians but she's the Secretary of Defense in some sort of government which controls both Elysium, which seems to operate as its own country, and of the Earth itself and you know what I give up; the more "Elysium" explains, the less believable it gets].
This wouldn't be a big Hollywood action movie without a cute kid to spur the hero on, so naturally the daughter of Max's childhood friend (Alice Braga) is dying of cancer and needs to get up to Elysium, too. Max fights against his own heroic nature, and against Copley and his men, for as long as he can but in the end he is trapped in an action movie which means one thing. Showdown on the space station.
When the ham-handed socio-political commentary takes a breather "Elysium" actually isn't a bad action movie, buoyed by a decent performance from Damon and some extremely well put together set pieces from Blomkamp (though like with his previous films the best is saved for the very end and you've got to wait a while for it).
The problem is the better the dumb action movie elements get, the worse the smart commentary parts get, right up to the denouement where it is revealed that no citizen of Elysium can be arrested for anything, ever (just follow that train of through to its logical conclusion). This would be, well not forgivable, but at least expected if "Elysium" were the dumb movie trying to look smart it pretends to be, but it's not. It's trying to be the opposite, a smart movie playing dumb in order to get its own point across and that incongruity will make your head explode, raining bloody giblets down on all of the people unfortunate enough to be sitting next to you.
Now, that all does sound much worse than "Elysium" really is - as a roller coaster it is pretty good fun and if that's all you want and/or you know or care nothing at all about the politics and policies surrounding the developing world it probably is one of the better film experiences you'll have in the theater this summer. But if you can't ignore the ham-handedness of the message, which moves quickly from not far off base to way, way over the top, it might be just too much for you.