Introduction: I fell in love with Neill Blomkamp when I saw his first full-length work, District 9 (2009), which ranks in my personal top five favorite movies of all time. Not only do I appreciate his willingness to use his native South Africa as a backdrop, as well as cast South African actors, I also enjoy his gritty cinematic style and compelling storytelling that typically leaves me with a great deal to think about. After seeing Chappie (2015), I was curious to check out his only film (to date) that I had yet to see, Elysium (2013). Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: In the year 2154, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the planet’s crime and poverty, and they critically need the state-of-the-art medical care available on Elysium – but some in Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens’ luxurious lifestyle. The only man with the chance bring equality to these worlds is Max (Matt Damon), an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission – one that pits him against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her hard-line forces – but if he succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well.
My Take: I was genuinely conflicted over how to rate this movie as it certainly has some good (even strong) points in its favor, chiefly thanks to Damon’s performance and the fact this is a stand-alone film based on an original story. Yet it also has some weaker elements that caused me to deem it as just an average action sci-fi movie. In short, I was expecting the same degree of narrative creativity and emotional dexterity that District 9 possessed (seeing as Chappie was released two years after this film, so I don’t believe it’s fair to try to make comparisons to it). Instead, while Elysium is by no means a shallow popcorn flick, it suffers from some noticeable issues that prevent me from giving it an eager thumbs up.
But first the good stuff! Visually, this film continues with Blomkamp’s signature urban, dystopian style that seamlessly blends the mundane with the futuristic. Even though many scenes in this film showcase the space station-esque Elysium and sundry space-faring transport vessels, these effects feel very organic, as if they’re naturally part of the story world’s setting rather than phoned in. Similarly, the special effects are also well done and, surprisingly for a sci-fi film, don’t come across as heavy-handed. While this certainly isn’t on the same level of visual spectacle or beauty as, say, any one of the Star Trek reboots, it isn’t intended to be and works well with what it has.
Speaking of organic, Elysium is filmed in a rather gritty way and I mean that literally. A good portion of the story is set against a dusty, arid backdrop of a derelict Los Angeles, and you can almost feel the baking sun and wind-swept dirt. Capturing the natural environment (often at its least forgivable) is something Blomkamp seems a master at doing and it’s one element in all three of his films that I deeply appreciate because it brings a sense of genuine realism to a completely fictional story.
Performance-wise, Matt Damon brings Max to life as a character who, deep down inside, is a good soul that remains hidden beneath a rather unassuming and roughened exterior. Damon has remained one of my favorite actors for years and for good reason (I think). He slays it as Jason Bourne and rightfully deserved critical acclaim for his performance in Good Will Hunting (talk about a study in contrasts right there!). So, for me, watching this movie because of his presence in it was a no-brainer.
In Elysium, as well as in other films, he’s able to meld into whatever type of character a film calls for, so much so that I no longer believe I’m watching Matt Damon on screen but a well-rounded character who feels like he could actually exist. The same holds true for Max, who seems like a real person. Plus, I thought it was fun watching Damon play a character in a sci-fi film as I can’t recall him being in this sort of movie before. But he certainly fits into this genre without appearing out of place or struggling with the setting or subject matter. As a whole, Damon looks like he’s having fun: not to imply he tries to get jokey with his performance but he tosses in little nuances, from a smart quip to a warm smile, to show that Max is a human character and not a stock figure. Max also has a complete story arc that begins with a brief flashback to his childhood and ends full circle, which was enjoyable and felt like a properly finished narrative by the end.
In the same way, I appreciated the fact that Max isn’t a traditional hero and is, instead, an antihero. The story makes it no secret that Max has dabbled in criminal activity in the past, hence his moral compass isn’t quite as grounded as a traditional heroic figure’s would be. Likewise, when Max discovers he’s about to die, he initially wants to get to Elysium for treatment just for himself. But later Max no longer thinks of just his own well-being. In short, Elysium, despite its flaws, does work as a good messianic tale where we have a character act selflessly for the good of others, total strangers to whom he owes nothing. From that aspect, I think Elysium works and I thought Damon’s portrayal of an antiheroic character such as Max was very believable and enjoyable to watch.
Concerning the rest of the cast, it’s nice to see Sharlto Copley return to work with Blomkamp, as the pair initially worked together in District 9 in which Copley starred. Here, Copley portrays Kruger, a psychopathic assassin and hired gun, who essentially is a one-note character as he’s intended to chiefly serve as the on-the-ground antagonist Max squares off with more than once. But at least it’s good to see Copley, who is South African, gain more on-screen attention here in the States. (For the record, Copley has worked with Blomkamp a third time in Chappie, serving as the voice of the title character, so it’s good to see a director-actor pairing such as this as it implies that they apparently get along and respect each other’s work.) Along the same lines, actor William Fichtner makes an appearance here as an antagonistic figure. While he’s not well-known, I suppose, he has a faithful following, so fans looking to see more of his work might consider checking him out in Elysium. While it’s a rather small role, Fichtner at least doesn’t act like he doesn’t care and, instead, handles his on-screen moments with the utmost professionalism. (I was a big fan of his work in Fox’s Prison Break, so it’s nice to see him garner some big-screen time and, for what it’s worth, he has more to work with here than he did in The Dark Knight.)
Lastly, there is a social message here regarding the right of healthcare for everyone, but it isn’t hammered home too hard. Blomkamp tends to present us with some sort of message in his films (namely discrimination) though this one seems to be the most timely. Myself, I strongly dislike (read: hate) it when a movie, television show, or novel tries to shoehorn in a social justice message, turning the story into a sermon. Thankfully, Elysium avoids this trap as it allows its message to hover beneath the surface as it just barely avoids breaching out into the open. That being said, I respect it for treating its audiences like they have brains, meaning if you want to read the film as a pro-universal healthcare morality tale, you can. But if you don’t care to read that far into it or you simply want to enjoy it for its own merits, then the film gives you room to do that as well.
But for everything Elysium seems to do right, it still hit some snags. For as much as I hate to do it, especially after sounding so positive, I do have to get into some of the issues I had with this movie.
First, Jodie Foster’s performance is sorrily lackluster. I’m not overly familiar with her filmography, seeing as this is only the third film of hers I’ve ever seen (the other two being Maverick and Contact), so I’m probably not the best judge in knowing how she typically tackles a role. But whereas Matt Damon seems comfortable in his role and appears to be having fun, Foster seems constricted and robotic. Again, maybe this is just a character type she plays but, whether it is or not, it comes across as stiff and strangulated. Her character, Delacourt, is one-note all throughout and never evolves. She is the chief antagonist but, for me, a good villain has to display something to make me like her even though she isn’t intentionally constructed to be a likable character. I’ve seen this type of baddie before – the evil, power-mad corporate manipulator who barks orders and was born with a stiff upper lip. I sense Delacourt could have been interesting if she was given some sort of backstory, something to make her more personable, or even something totally from left field (such as making her an assassin rather than having Kruger shoulder all of the weight – that would have been a delightfully surprising twist!). Regardless, seeing as Foster’s scenes comprise quite a bit of screen-time, they were less enjoyable for me and less engaging than watching Damon bring his character to life.
But my biggest issue with Elysium is with its story. It’s not that it doesn’t come across as believable or becomes preachy – it commits neither of those narrative sins. Instead, the story is simply predicable. Some of the set up scenes involving Max are to be expected, but after he is outfitted with a special exoskeleton and a means by which to break into Elysium, the story takes very predicable twists and turns. For this to be a sci-fi action film, it stays rather pedestrian for a good hour or so before finally moving the action into space. Granted, there are some cool weapons and Max’s exoskeleton provides him a unique edge in a fight, but there really is nothing here that screams uniqueness or even ingenuity in the way said devices are used.
Likewise, the story itself seems to drag, especially past the hour mark and feels much longer than its 109 minute running time. I actually started skimming through scenes just to get to the end, so I openly admit that I intentionally missed portions of the movie, chiefly in its late-act two/early act three scenes. However, even by the end I don’t feel like I missed much as the plot is predicable enough that it’s easy to fill in the gaps. Normally Blomkamp’s films follow a particular story formula but toss in a few well-deserved surprises that keep them from becoming too conventional. But Elysium follows a very tried-and-true “little man” v. “big man” storyline, so it’s nothing we haven’t seen before aside from the fact that it assumes a sci-fi guise. That being said, I have a tendency to be able to predict plots and that probably stems from me having been a bookworm and a writer. So it’s possible my brain just automatically tries to plot out a story in advance and, hence, tries to guess what will happen. Some viewers might not have this issue, so for them it’s possible Elysium really does offer up some surprises. But from my best guess, even when it does try to surprise you, the path leading up to the surprise can be spotted a mile away.
Though, unlike other films that fall into the predictability trap, Elysium at least tries to make itself count for something. For starters, even if you were to disregard the film as a veiled social commentary, it is fairly obvious that it presents an “us v. them” set up. This is achieved by depicting the remnant of Earth as the struggling masses and the citizens of Elysium as the pristine upper crust. Its social justice commentary aside, the film does a good job of presenting a message that all human life is valuable and precious, no matter the person’s social standing or background. Max’s character embodies this as he, at first, wants to get to Elysium for a cure solely for himself but later breaks out of his own little world. While the ending was predicable, I did find it fitting. I won’t go into detail about it as it counts as a massive spoiler, but it’s the sort of ending that you kind of see coming yet the story couldn’t really have worked any other way so you’re okay with it. The payoff Max receives is appropriate for his character, so I wasn’t upset over how it all played out. I only wished that the story leading up to it would have been less foreseeable.
In the end, Elysium is the weakest of Blomkamp’s films to date, at least for me. District 9 remains in the top spot for its unique story, compelling characters, and emotional depth. Chappie trails close behind for the same reasons. But Elysium squarely belongs in the bottom slot chiefly due to its unsurprising story and weak chief villain. That being said, it’s by no means a terrible film but simply a mediocre one.
Content Breakdown: Elysium was given an R rating but my assessment of its content is as follows (please keep in mind that I did end up skipping past several scenes just to speed things along, so there might be content that I missed):
Language – There is a range of profanities, from mild to harsh, but their usage isn’t terribly pervasive, and most of the harshest words are uttered by characters in times of great stress or danger.
Violence –There are several scenes of extended fight and combat sequences that turn violent and bloody but not excessively gory. Guns and blades are used as weapons and several characters are shown being wounded and killed in a variety of ways, including being killed in space (with the latter being the least bloody). Death scenes range from depicting some blood and blood splatter to actual gore, though instances involving the latter are less common. Probably the goriest moments come as one character unknowingly has explosive devices attached to him, which detonate (we his body explode on screen) and another character literally has his face blown off (though later it’s reconstructed). Max undergoes surgery where he is outfitted with an exoskeleton and a chip in his brain, so there are a few blood-letting moments as a chip is inserted into his head and screws drilled into his body. Elsewhere, Max is trapped in a factory and subjected to intense radiation, and later we learn he only has days to live; so this sequence is more upsetting than violent or gory. Lastly, one character is willingly sacrificed.
Sexual Material – None. Kruger, who we learn by exposition is a convicted murderer and rapist, makes menacing veiled sexual comments towards a female character (such as insisting she become his wife simply because he always wanted a wife) but never actually harms her though he tries. Elsewhere, a character makes a quick, one-line joke about another character being able to pleasure himself after being subjected to body-altering surgery.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Elysium stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. This film is solidly an R due to its language and bloody violence, so it is too intense for children.
Older Children & Teens – The edited version that is sure to air on television would be fine for teens (provided they’re fans of the cast) though most older children, I would venture to guess, won’t be attracted to this movie due to its overall story.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, though, to be honest, Blomkamp’s other films rank higher than this one. But if you’re curious to check it out, it’s still worth a watch.
Overall, Elysium is an average sci-fi offering: not bad but not great. What it gets right, it gets right, namely Matt Damon’s performance and the film’s gritty, realistic visual style. But what it gets wrong exposes the cracks in the finished product, and most of these issues arise from a predicable plot that is devoid of much surprise. As a whole though, the film at least avoids becoming a shallow popcorn flick thanks to the character of Max and its attempt to inject a deeper message about the value of human life. But it doesn’t stack up as particularly memorable albeit it’s not the most boring or even the worst of its kind.