Not since Avatar has there been a science-fiction movie been so invested in delivering a message while having so little faith in the capacity of its audience to grasp it.
Writer/Director Neil Blomkamp takes great pains to have you understand that Elysium, unlike other summer fare, is Very Serious Business. His last film, District 9, was a thinly veiled allegory about racism and oppression. This movie takes whatever thin veil there was and rips it to shreds.
There’s no question that Elysium means well. It tries hard to wrap messages about immigration, health care, and class warfare into an action-packed, robot-filled package that summer moviegoers will enjoy. The problem with that is that with much of its two-hour running time taken up with (admittedly very well-filmed) fight scenes, Elysium doesn’t really have any sort of time to expand on its premise. The result is cartoonish, straw-man villains, under-explored settings, and an ending that fails to make sense. We’re supposed to imagine that the world would be a perfect place if only the rich snobs who run the titular space station of Elysium would let the poor, working masses in so that they could receive treatment from the magical health care robots up there (machines that can flawlessly restore a man’s face after it was blown off by a grenade, but are unable to resuscitate a woman who died of blood-loss five minutes earlier.)
The movie seems to suggest, however, that all the inequality in its world, all the injustice, and all the woes that beset humanity can be solved by the simple press of a button (literally). And that just doesn’t feel anything close to realistic; it undermines both the movie’s premise and its attempts at political relevancy.
It might be possible to just ignore logic and enjoy some good sci-fi action if Bomkamp weren’t trying so darned hard to hit you with his message. It’s hard to say what the most cringe-worthy scene in Elysium is. Maybe it’s the part where a Hispanic girl is taken to a healing robot only for it to deny her treatment because she is not a citizen (it’s an analogy about health care reform for immigrant children. Get it?) Maybe it’s villainess Jodie Foster’s speech about the people of earth (“do you want them coming into your homes, stealing the world you built for your children and your children’s children?” she demands of the leaders of Elysium.) Quite possibly it’s the fact that we’re supposed to accept Matt Damon as a latino. I suppose Nomkamp felt we wouldn’t have grasped Elysium’s subtle parallels to illegal immigration unless all the protagonists spoke Spanish, but didn’t want to cast an actual latino as a main character and risk losing ticket sales?
Despite its heavy-handed, plodding seriousness, Elysium manages to entertain, in large part due to the quality of its action scenes and to its gritty look. Just as in District 9, robots and laser-guns are mixed with slums and so much dust and grit you’ll need a long shower once you leave the theater. Elysium looks good, and it has the aesthetic of a good gangster film. Someone in the art department was doing their job; the world of Elysium, flat as it is, looks and sounds like a real place.
The action-scenes are actually better than District 9′s. There’s just the right amount of shaky-cam to liven things up, but not too much to give you a headache (as there was in another Matt Damon-starring action series). My only question was why, in a world filled with laser guns that can burn through walls and explosives that can track peoples heat signatures everyone seems so eager to engage Matt Damon in a fist-fight.
Damon serves as a likable hero and his nemesis, a hulking mercenary named Kruger (played by an almost unrecognizable Sharlto Copley from District 9) serves as a fitting antagonist. Props to Copley, who has proven he is able to play both a bumbling, nerdy government official and a terrifying, muscle-bound psychopath. It took me more than half the film to even recognize him (admittedly beneath a rather substantial beard) and then only with the help of a friend who was sitting next to me who let out a sudden gasp of recognition. It appears that Copley is a very versatile actor, and has a promising career ahead.
As an action movie Elysium is a success; but as a story, it has problems. The themes and world are too under-explored for the ending to do much besides make you ask a million questions the film isn’t ever going to answer. If it was just an action movie, we wouldn’t necessarily need answers, but since Elysium purports to offer solutions to modern-day socio-political problems, I have to ask. How did Elysium the space station come to exist? Do most people there approve of Jodie Foster’s cold-blooded methods? Is all earth an over-crowded slum, of just LA? How exactly does it all work—are we meant to understand that all the rich people in the world came together to build a space station just for them? Did the governments of all their respective countries just go along with it? Why is it that the villain fights with knives and katanas when laser guns are available? (Ok, so maybe that last one isn’t that important). Most pressing of all—if it’s so easy to fly to Elysium (a shuttle full of armed heroes does it with no problem late in the film, since Elysium’s only defense against intruders appears to be one man with a missile launcher who lives in Los Angeles), who hasn’t it been overrun long before the coming of Matt Damon?
There are a lot of scenes in the movie that work, and even do what Blomkamp wanted—feel highly emotional and highly relevant. A terrible workplace accident caused by a callous CEO had me cringing in my seat. Another scene in which Damon confronts a robotic patrol officer offers a frustrating, Kafka-esque look at the bureaucracy. The entire first forty-five minutes of the movie (i.e., the moments before the fight scenes start) succeed at setting a bleak and mood of righteous indignation. But instead of running strong to the finish line, Elysium hobbles there, hamstrung by ham-fisted setting and characterization, and far too many logical leaps. Maybe an extended cut can succeed in fleshing out Elysium’s world and providing a better context for all that thrilling action. But if not, Elysium will have to be just a pretty good summer blockbuster, not the insightful look at class relations it seems to want to be.