With District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp crafted an original character study of a man (Sharlto Copley) trapped on the wrong side of the Earth’s treatment of alien refugees as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the social segregation in Blomkamp’s home country of South Africa. The result was one of 2009’s best films. Sadly Elysium, Blomkamp’s latest, is no District 9.
While dealing with similar themes of class warfare, inequalities, and a greedy one-percent, Elysium trades in metaphor for far less subtle preaching about the evils of social inequality between the haves and have nots.
The haves include the wealthiest members of the human race who have abandoned their world to live in luxury on the space station Elysium, leaving the polluted planet to the less fortunate. The inequality doesn’t end there, however. Whereas as the rich partake of miraculous medical advancements that can literally cure any affliction in the matter of seconds, the rest of the world is left with nothing more advanced than current medical devices and training.
Our story centers on the hard-luck case of Max (Matt Damon), a former thief with a heart of gold turned factory worker whose legendary bad luck streak (beginning with a broken arm and being exposed to a lethal amount of radiation giving him only five days to live) leads Max to reconnect with his criminal past and finally fulfill his lifelong dream of reaching Elysium (the only place where his life-threatening condition can be cured).
Along for the ride are Max’s childhood friend Fray (Alice Braga) who has recently returned to the slums after getting her medical license, Fray’s cancer-ridden daughter (Emma Tremblay) who like Max will die if she stays on Earth, Max’s terrorist pal Spider (Wagner Moura) who hooks Max up with an exoskeleton and hard drive wired into his brain, and Max’s old boss (William Fichtner) who has information inside his head that Spider is willing to trade to ensure Max gets to Elysium.
Needing a host of villains to stand in his way, Blomkamp casts Jodie Foster as Elysium’s power-crazed Secretary of Defense Delacourt and Copley as the leader of a ragtag group of illegal soldiers Delacourt sends after Max and the incredibly valuable information stored in his head. Nearly laughable in the old school western style, Blmokamp offers no shades of gray here as Max and Frey (and even Spider and his gun-totting minions) are all cast as prototypical white hats and martyrs while Foster, Copley, and the disinterested masses of Elysium lack even the smallest sign of humanity or generosity.
In fact the only person shown in Elysium with any hint of a conscience is the President (Faran Tahir), but then again the man 1) consistently allows Delacourt’s brutal actions with only minor recriminations and 2) is largely a powerless figurehead we are never asked to take seriously. For tackling complicated themes like social justice and class warfare Blomkamp amps up the villainous of the super-rich even when it goes against their best interest (why deny basic medical and atmospheric knowledge to Earth that is readily available only to cause the resentment of billions?) giving us a simplified and watered-down message that lacks any real punch. Those who live on Elysium aren’t wrong because they’re detached living in their perfect little bubble but truly awful human beings that get off on the suffering of others.
Although Blomkamp forces his message down the throat of the audience this time around there are several pieces of Elysium that work. With both its action sequences and its presentation of a dystopian future Elysium succeeds, even if fails to offer anything new or unexpected. And with the exception of Copley (whose ill-cast for such an over-the-top role), the acting is quite good throughout. Finally given a budget, Blomkamp’s team succeeds in producing an imaginative design and look of Elysium. The Mexican slums which are meant to represent futuristic Los Angeles don’t work as well (especially for anyone who has already seen the director use similar locales much more effectively in District 9).
As a follow-up to District 9, Elysium can’t be seen as anything more than the director cashing in on a big budget movie wrapped around a simplistic message has all the subtlety of a Michael Bay film. The film still works as populist entertainment, and the director is able to craft a world and characters worth spending some time with, but as anything more than a late summer sci-fi flick Elysium is a bit of a failure.