“The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of us are going to the stars!” — Anonymous
I’ll just come out and say it: In retrospect, I think that District 9 is a little overrated. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie; the special effects were awesome, the aliens were wonderfully designed, the whole mech suit sequence was exquisite, and Sharlto Copley’s performance was wonderful. That being said, the film suffered for telling an overly simplistic story with such a fantastically creative premise. Take away the novel immigration allegory and you’re left with a completely sympathetic protagonist struggling for survival against cartoonishly evil villains. The protagonist’s own father-in-law orders the guy chopped up for parts without a second thought, for God’s sake.
I think that District 9 gets a free pass from a lot of film geeks because it was Neill Blomkamp’s debut picture. If the film had been made by an established director with a dozen movies under his belt, it probably would have come and gone without too much attention. But it was nothing short of miraculous for a debut filmmaker to come out of nowhere and make a movie with that much creativity, ambition, and skill with visual effects. If it did nothing else, the film showed that Blomkamp had tremendous potential as one of the next great sci-fi filmmakers.
As such, there were a whole ton of eyes on Elysium, and I’ve seen quite a few cinephiles call it their most anticipated film of the year. For my part, I was cautiously optimistic. Just from looking at the trailer, I could already see a lot of the morally simplistic flaws seen in District 9. But I had no idea how bad it could get.
The premise begins in the waning years of the 21st century. To escape the polluted and overpopulated planet, the uber-wealthy have built the ultimate gated community for themselves. Elysium is a massive space station that offers clean air, grand mansions, and other luxuries denied to the dirty proletariat. Among these luxuries are special medical pods that can fix any illness or disability with… um… magic? In all honesty, I have no idea how these machines work.
Let’s pause here for a moment. Observe that this wonderful medical technology is available on Elysium and absolutely none of it is offered on Earth. There is no explanation given for this. It couldn’t be scarcity, because we eventually learn that there are enough of these medical pods to serve everyone on the planet. The machines run themselves, so it’s not like there are doctors or technicians who have to be paid for their time and expertise. If these machines somehow needed zero-gravity conditions to work, that might have explained something, but that’s not the case here. So basically, the One Percent are hoarding all of this good stuff to themselves just to be dicks about it.
And make no mistake, the folks on Elysium are hoarding everything. They offer absolutely no assistance to the people living on Earth, and there’s no reason why. I realize that this is supposed to be an allegory for the conflict between first-world countries and third-world countries, but that doesn’t hold water. In the real world, we have plenty of philanthropists, charity organizations, and government agencies pumping billions of dollars into foreign aid. Bill Gates alone has spent more money on Africa than you or I could make in ten lifetimes. And lest we forget, first-world countries aren’t exactly perfect either. Even the wealthiest countries have tons of crime and poverty, but Elysium somehow doesn’t? Yeah, right.
Anyway, cut to Los Angeles in the 22nd century. This is where we meet Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former car thief trying to get his life back on straight. The guy has a job building robots on an assembly line, though law enforcement tends to give the convict an overly hard time. Ironically, since law enforcement officials are all robots now, Max is probably being abused by the very same droids he helped build. Things get even worse for Max when a workplace accident fries him with a lethal dose of radiation. Much as I wish that it had granted him superpowers, Max is instead given a bottle of pills and a prognosis of five days to live.
Okay, one: Why do robots need to be heavily radiated while being built? Two: The accident happens because of a mechanical malfunction that Max’s boss demands he go in and fix. The whole thing was a fatal accident just waiting to happen, and Max’s supervisor orders him to certain death anyway. The catalyst for this whole damn story was a spineless, heartless, brainless dickbag ordering our protagonist into a giant workplace hazard that was there for no clear reason. And the movie never addresses this or follows up on the moronic supervisor in any way. To sum up: There is no reason why this story should ever have happened!
*sigh* Let’s move on. Now that Max has nothing to lose, he goes to a criminal named Spider (Wagner Moura), who specializes in sending undocumented shuttles to Elysium. Because Max’s radiation poisoning has left him extremely weak, Spider hooks him up (quite literally) with a cybernetic exoskeleton that grants super-strength. Spider also promises a one-way ride to Elysium. In return, he asks for the head of an Elysium citizen. And yes, I mean that literally as well.
See, those living up in space have somehow developed the technology to download information directly into their brains. This information could include security codes to Elysium, passwords to massive bank accounts, and other such data that would be necessary for a flight to the stars. However, Max decides to go after John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the head of the corporation that he used to work for. This turns out to be a bad idea, as Carlyle just happens to have something extra in his head that makes things all manner of complicated.
The main point here is that Max is an underdog who’s trying to be a better person, he’s put in a desperate situation through no fault of his own, and he’s being played with the natural charm and charisma of Matt Damon. I won’t even get started on his love interest (Frey, played by Alice Braga), who also ntheeds a ticket to Elysium because her daughter has acute leukemia. Hell, I couldn’t hope to count all the sick children who show up in this movie. The film uses so many hopelessly cliched and insultingly trite methods to earn sympathy for characters who probably had our sympathy to begin with. It amounts to a morality that’s laughably simplistic, especially when you meet our villains.
I’ve already mentioned Carlyle, who’s played as a smarmy prick because that’s what William Fichtner does better than just about anyone else. There’s also Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a psychopath with top-of-the-line cybernetic implants who works as a mercenary for those on Elysium. Kruger is a fun character to watch, and Copley seems to really be enjoying himself in the role. Unfortunately, this homicidal madman has no place in a movie that bills itself as a work of thought-provoking science fiction. If this had been a film in the vein of Robocop or Total Recall, Kruger would’ve made a good film great. However, because this film’s action is presented with none of the subtlety or heady commentary that defined Verhoeven at his best, Kruger is just another two-dimensional character with nothing of interest to say in a movie that’s already full of them.
Speaking of which, there’s the matter of Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defense on Elysium. Where do I even begin with this character? First of all, this is a woman who ruthlessly kills anyone who tries to invade Elysium, and her predilection for mass murder is never given any kind of justification. Secondly, when Delacourt’s supervisors come down to say that she needs to stop with all the killing — and also, that she shouldn’t have a bona fide nutjob like Kruger on the payroll — Delacourt up and decides that she’s going to overthrow the whole damned government, simple as that. There’s absolutely no morality or logic to this character. There’s no effort made to justify her actions and we never get a chance to understand her reasons or methods. Of course, it doesn’t help that Foster goes through the whole film chewing scenery, mugging for the camera, and otherwise just begging to be killed off. The character is flat fucking evil, and there’s nothing else to it.
It really upsets me that the film offers no nuance or intelligent discussion, because everything else about this movie is overflowing with ambition and talent and effort. The scope of this movie is enormous. The sets look great. The droids look fantastic. The exoskeletons, weapons, and vehicles are all gleaming with polish. The score may be overbearing, but the sound design is otherwise painstakingly detailed. For the life of me, I can’t understand how so much thought and creativity could go into every facet of this movie except for the screenplay.
Then again, the world-building has quite a few flaws as well. We see an example roughly fifteen minutes in, when three of Spider’s ships try to board Elysium. In response, Delacourt calls in Kruger, who’s on Earth at the time. Kruger is sent to pick up a handheld rocket launcher that can shoot missiles from surface to space. He uses this device to shoot down the incoming craft.
I can ignore the fact that Kruger just happened to be within running distance of the weapon at the time, and that his location on the planet just happened to be facing Elysium when this happened. I can forgive a futuristic handheld rocket launcher targeting three moving objects with pinpoint accuracy several hundred miles away and launching missiles at escape velocity. But I cannot ignore the spaceship debris that would be hurtling toward Elysium if the missiles actually hit, and I can’t ignore the missiles that might be hurtling toward Elysium if they missed. Yet the movie ignores both. Even better, the movie never even brings up the possibility of launching missiles from Elysium, thereby ensuring that any harmful projectiles are headed away from the space station.
To be fair, that last point is probably because Elysium’s president (played by Faran Tahir) seems to frown upon using any kind of violence to deter illegal immigrants. But that begs the question of how anyone is supposed to turn away unwanted guests. What other options does Elysium have? Such a pity we never find out. Then again, considering that Elysium’s security droids are forbidden from arresting or harming Elysium citizens (no, really, that’s established in the movie), it’s like no one ever thought that anything could possibly go wrong up in space. Like there was never even the possibility that any legal resident of the upper class might try to commit murder or stage a political coup, OH WAIT.
Still, in my opinion, the world-building aspect of this movie completely jumps the shark roughly an hour and twenty in. A short while prior, we watched as a character took a grenade to the face. It was a close-up shot in slo-mo, to make sure we saw the grenade go off at point-blank range. The huge bloody spray was proof enough that this character was good and dead.
An hour and twenty minutes in, we get another close-up shot of the victim’s head. We can plainly see the giant gaping hole where someone’s face used to be. There is no breath, movement, or pulse, just the back of someone’s skull. But somehow, a medical pod on Elysium can still detect some “neural activity.” The character then gets a completely reconstructed head before climbing out of the pod with no sign that anything had ever happened.
BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!!!
I don’t care how good the medicine is on Elysium, that character was fucking dead. How can someone possibly have any noteworthy “neural acitivity” when their brain is completely gone? Are we supposed to believe that there’s no death on Elysium? That the machines are good enough to bring people back to life? Even if we allow that absurd premise, then that just makes the film’s third-act deaths even more pointless. No joke, there’s one point when a character says “There’s no turning back from this. Not even a med-pod would be able to save you.” To which I would respond “Fuck you, dude! I saw one of those things rebuild half of someone’s head in five seconds without any residual effects at all!”
On a final note, I have to address the camerawork. To be blunt, it’s godawful. You thought the shaky-cam was bad in Man of Steel? This film abuses shaky-cam and speed-ramping to the point where Zack Snyder would look like Michael Haneke by comparison. It’s especially shameful, since this movie offers some very creative action scenes with some very strategic use of gore. I just wish that I could’ve seen more of it through the hyperkinetic camera and the schizophrenic editing.
Elysium is a great big mass of wasted potential. The allegories for immigration and health care are wasted on characters void of nuance and an overall lack of anything intelligent to say. The creative action scenes are wasted on horrendous camerawork. The attempts at world-building are ruined by plot holes and lazy writing.
Even so, Neill Blomkamp’s astronomical ambitions are on full display, and he continues to show prodigious skill with visual effects. I sincerely hope that he finds a good screenwriter to collaborate with, and that the pair of them deliver a film worthy of Blomkamp’s heady sci-fi concepts. In the meantime, there’s no possible way I can recommend this movie. If you’ve been waiting to see it for so many months, wait a little longer until you can rent it. I strongly suggest staying away from a big-screen viewing, and staying FAR away from an IMAX viewing.