Release Date: August 9, 2013
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
MPAA Rating: R
Neill Blomkamp might just be the best visual effects director working in Hollywood today. With District 9, he showed what he could do with a shoestring budget. And now, with Elysium, he finally has a real Hollywood bankroll to work with and he certainly makes the most of it.
Elysium is an absolutely beautiful film. Blomkamp creates a lavish, detailed world that seamlessly integrates special and practical effects. You never question the visual effects. They are just a part of the world. You accept that there are robot cops patrolling the streets of Earth and that the bad guys use state-of-the-art BFGs capable of taking down a small aircraft.
Unfortunately, while Blomkamp once again excels at delivering a breathtaking world, Elysium‘s story falls a bit flat. It is by no means a bad film, but some lackluster writing keeps you from being as invested in the story as you should be.
The film is set in a future where the wealthiest people on Earth built themselves a massive space station called Elysium that orbits Earth. The space station is terraformed, so it is basically a giant floating beach community. On Elysium, the rich people live it up in luxury, taking advantage of these amazing computerized health stations that can heal any illness and, essentially, make them immortal.
For reasons never quite stated, the wealthy have decided to keep this technology all to themselves. These healing stations are portable and incredibly easy to use, so it is a bit baffling that the rich people would be that callous, but in this film they are. Even one line of dialogue explaining that they can’t share the technology with the poor people back on Earth because making the working class immortal like them would put too much of a strain on Earth’s diminishing resources would have helped sell the overall plot. But instead, we are just left with “rich people are evil.”
This becomes an important plot point because our hero, Max (Matt Damon), is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at his factory job. The owner of the company, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), is so callous that he is more concerned with the bed sheets Max is convalescing on than the fact that his worker is going to die. Again, he could cure Max by taking him up to Elysium and letting him use one of the healing stations, but instead he decides to fire him and leave him to die on the streets. (I guess lawsuits no longer exist in the future.)
Desperate, Max decides to turn to a criminal named Spider (Wagner Moura) for help sneaking into Elysium to heal himself. It’s the dynamic between Max and Spider that I found most problematic in the film. Max is our protagonist, he is the person we should be rooting for. And he is warned by a friend to stay away from Spider because the guy is supposedly bad news. And yet, Spider comes off as a much more sympathetic and likable character than Max.
Spider uses the resources at his command to smuggle sick people from Earth into Elysium to get them healed. And he’s looking for a way to hack Elysium’s system so that he can offer free health care to everyone.
Max, meanwhile, is an ex-con who is only out for himself. It’s a character that could have worked as an antihero (a la Han Solo in Star Wars), but in order for that to work, there has to be a point where Max makes the decision to stop being a selfish jerk and to help society instead. That moment never really comes. The entire film, Max is only out for himself. He even refuses to help the little girl of the woman he is supposed to be in love with. It’s only at the end of the film that he decides to earnestly help with the revolution, but even then it comes off more as necessity than nobility.
While the film offers up a lackluster hero, the villain is an absolutely joy to watch on-screen. Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley, is a mercenary soldier used by Elysium’s head of security Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to deal with “problems” she wants handled quickly and efficiently. Kruger relentlessly hunts Max throughout the film. Copley injects so much personality into the role and his version of the sadistic Kruger is unnerving and utterly captivating.
Still, it would have been a much better film if Kruger had been given a worthy hero to do battle with. But even though our protagonist kept me from ever feeling truly invested in the film, the visual effects and the brilliant performance by Copley still left me entertained. So if you are looking to see a beautifully-shot sci-fi film on the big screen, I recommend giving it a shot.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.