South African director Neill Blomkamp gained quick traction as being the most exciting visionary on the market when his 2009 District 9 film blasted into theaters. For Elysium, Blomkamp was given a large budget and it definitely shows in the immersive world created, but there are qualities that were charming in District 9 that don’t necessarily carry over in this sociopolitical outing.
This time around Blomkamp creates a much grander landscape of a dystopian Earth in the year 2154. During this time there’s a class war waging between two different worlds. In this futuristic vision Earth is suffering after its resources are completely depleted, which is the result of an environmental and economic collapse. The civilians are underprivileged and work like dogs, and take orders from amusing but tough androids, while breathing in polluted air. This all goes on while the rich sit mighty up in the sky on a different venue called Elysium. One of those commoners is Max (Matt Damon), once a car thief turned honest worker, Max’s troubles start early on as he’s exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, leaving him only five days to live. To reach his cure he must go to Elysium, where one quick body scan could cure the most life-threatening disease imaginable.
Always dreaming of getting to a better place that will lead to a better future, Max’s troubles are elevated, as he’s too poor for a ticket to a pristine Elysium. He reluctantly enlists in the help of a fiery rebel named Spider, who has the swift moves any rogue war hero would. The two hatch up a plan to kidnap the CEO of Armadyne corp (William Fichtner) to steal data from his brain that would allow them direct access to help, and to override Elysium’s protocols. The exoskeleton contraption is embedded into Max’s body before the kidnapping, which ultimately acts as the largest B12 shot to the system.
Although the plot is a far more intelligent story that most sci fi’s see these days, Blomkamp flounders in his not-so-subtle political message. Elysium proves to be a metaphor for something greater. Underneath the Mexico City backdrop, which is where the film was shot, lies a socialist message that comes in loud and clear, but completely hinders the story from fully forming in a big way. Obviously universal health care is at the top of Blomkamp’s message, as Spider wants to override Elysium’s system and cripple their elitist citizenship in favor for the poverty-stricken folks to join the world that’s out of reach. Another theme that runs throughout is immigration, and how horribly the people of Elysium treat those without a certified code, which more than hints at opening up the borders, as well as amnesty among all citizens.
Didactic more than it is inspirational, Blomkamp’s political movement pretty much stops the story from building in character arcs, which results in a light script despite its ambitious plot and foreground that Elysium has going for it. While most Hollywood films dip into more liberal thinking backdrops, Elysium fails to fully realize its idealisms. Although the people of Earth are granted access to Elysium, it’s not exactly explained how this new Elysium would work, and if people could actually coexist under a new regime of sorts.
Still, it bears mentioning that having a lead like Matt Damon is incredibly important for a film with a message, even if it’s half-baked. Tossing aside the fantastic visuals, and sophisticated plot, what really makes this film work is Damon’s ability to convey the most extreme political message and make it appealing to the viewer. Although Damon’s star has risen considerably since he played a struggling drop out in Good Will Hunting, the actor still has that spark and the chip on his shoulder to make you believe that he can do great things and overcome his turmoil. The same goes for his portrayal of a hardened citizen worker. At the same time Damon is also believable in equal measure as someone who can carry the weight of an action film on his shoulders. Damon rises to the occasion and makes the film entertaining enough to enjoy despite its problems. So when Elysium loses its steam in its narrative, the audience probably won’t feel it as much as Damon truly fits the gritty guerilla-styled action sequences like a glove.
For Neill Blomkamp, his intentions are good, and, even though he does falter, he’s still leagues ahead as a storyteller and a visual artist.
ELYSIUM HITS THEATERS FRIDAY, AUGUST 9.