Aug 6 2013 12:35pm

...Nor Heavy Storm, Nor Ever Rain, But Disappointment: Elysium

Elysium Sharlto Copley

Although different in both particulars and scale from Elysium, a look back at District 9 can illuminate how Elysium came to be what it is. District 9 made an instant name for debut director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp, with its vivid, barely-even-allegorical Apartheid storyline and its ingenious design and effects, becoming a substantial hit worldwide. Despite a faux-documentary conceit that doesn’t really hold up, District 9 is a terrific movie, solid SF, and tremendously satisfying emotionally, however heartbreaking its final image. And so Elysium, with its bigger budget and movie stars, not to mention similarly socially conscious subject matter, is one of the most anticipated movies, SF or otherwise, in 2013. Can it possibly hold up?

It may have been possible for it to do so, but Elysium is, tragically, a huge mess in ways that carry over the wrong parts of District 9 (the attention deficit to detail) rather than the right (the freshness and novelty of setting). It’s a mess with some potential, though: in 2154, the wealthy have abandoned the surface of the Earth for an orbiting paradise—that looks like a cross between Larry Niven’s Ringworld and the space station in 2001—called Elysium, where among other luxuries healthcare has progressed to the point where automated, in-home surgical beds can cure even terminal cancer in seconds. In stark contrast, Earth is a bleak, impoverished dystopia, with overflowing hospitals that can barely treat the sick, and robot police and bureaucrats make day-to-day life miserable. In this world, a factory worker (Matt Damon) finds himself needing to get to Elysium to undo the effects of a horrific accident and save his own life. To do so, he needs to turn to the criminal underworld, and finds himself aligned against a dangerous array of antagonists, principally a power-hungry Elysium security chief (Jodie Foster), and her preferred black ops agent, a dangerously unhinged mercenary (Sharlto Copley).

The basic premise—Matt Damon needs to get to Elysium—is simple enough. The problem is, given the nature and variety of obstacles in his way, the resolution of that quest is a little too simple as well. Without spoiling particulars, his path from the gutter to the stars is paved with coincidence upon convenient contrivance upon deus ex machina. In some movies, it’s possible to dismiss this kind of thing, in exchange for some awesome action or cool creatures or some such. Elysium presents itself as, and has clear ambitions to be, something more: a smarter science-fiction movie, one with commentary on the divide between the rich and poor and the self-defeating measures the former take to preserve their hegemony over the latter. A different kind of divide ultimately thwarts Elysium in that goal, one between the intelligence and conscience of its premise and the clumsiness of its plot. I use “plot” on purpose, because it all feels like a blueprint, plowing through the various checkpoints that will inevitably lead to Matt Damon getting to Elysium to confront the baddies, rather than a story, something where actions are taken by people.

On the other hand, while none of the characters are particularly fleshed-out or interesting on their own merits, most of them are played well. Jodie Foster struggles to find anything to do beyond just “be evil,” but she’s an accomplished enough thespian that even that’s interesting for the relatively limited amount of time she’s on screen. Alice Braga similarly struggles in an underwritten “love interest” role, although she manages to inject some life into it. The person who really takes the movie over, though, is Sharlto Copley. As Kruger, the amoral, incomprehensible mercenary, he’s the one unpredictable element in the movie—not just because his accent is so sublimely thick almost all anyone can hear is the cursing—and thus the most interesting; while you may not know what he’s going to do next, it’s a safe bet it’ll involve extreme violence and salty language. He’s a terrific villain, deserving of a better movie.

It’s not a total loss. Sharlto Copley greatness aside, there are some interesting design ideas in Elysium, and the social commentary hinted at in its premise is, if not fully realized, at least examined. It’s a rare enough movie these days that even tries for such things, and that’s this diverse in its casting, that Elysium and Blomkamp should be commended for that much, at least. But the cast remains faces and bodies rather than people, and the design is obscured by a constantly-shaking camera that renders almost everything in every action scene almost completely illegible. The rare exception, such as one splendid slow-motion demolition of an antagonistic robot by a futuristic machine gun, serve as teasers of what might have been if Blomkamp had kept the camera still and let us watch the people, robots, and people/robots punch each other.

Ah, what might have been. It’s important to note, though, that as much a downer as the above has been, we’ll always have District 9, and Blomkamp pretty clearly has another good movie in him. This one isn’t it, but as frustrating as it is, there are still glimpses (some extended) of Blomkamp’s talent. But it’s probably best to go in with expectations adjusted downward, just to be on the safe side.


Danny Bowes is a film critic and columnist for RogerEbert.com and Indiewire. He also blogs sporadically. You can follow him on Twitter.

1. dalgoda
The problem is that Apartheid was real. District 9 played up on that seperation of races and cultures. It worked, it had a story that seemed real and plausable.
Elysium does not work because the Occupy crowd is nothing but a fad, much like the free love movement of the 60's. The war on the "evil" wealthy has no merit in its substance. If the economy fails totally, we are ALL out of luck and we will ALL be out on the street. All classes will be forced to survive somehow.
The same wealthy people that might live in Elysium are the same people that funded Blomkamp's movie. It's hypocritical.
Mike Conley
2. NomadUK
Yes, thank goodness we have those wealthy people to help us all out of this mess. What would we have done without them?

Anyway, there really ought to be a law that requires anyone making a science fiction film to hire a real, honest-to-goodness science fiction writer to do the script and to make sure the whole thing holds together.
Genevieve Williams
3. welltemperedwriter
Well, that's too bad. It was about the only thing coming out this summer that looked remotely interesting. (Though I did wind up enjoying "Pacific Rim".)
4. Petar Belic

Make your own mind up. Go and see it for yourself. Some of my favourite movies have been blasted by critics I 'trust', and vice versa.

Nobody can be told exactly how a movie will make you feel. You have to see it for yourself.
5. Alan Morlock
The poverty of Tihuana is only 150 miles away from the gated communities of Beverly Hills. Regardless of the necessity of the economy, that says nothing for the necessity for any particular bottom line for quality of life nor for wealth inequality or the tendency towards class segregation. The rich sequestering themselves away in a space station instead of mansions and country clubs is simply an exageration and extrapolation.
6. MNP
@5 And in the future may not be an exageration. Imagine if asteroid mining takes off and we perfect 3-D printers. What need would the wealthy have for anyone else then?
7. sofrina
i liked it. the closing image was perfect. it's no district 9, but it was still interesting. it would have been nice to see more of the layout and organization of elysium. there's a mention of suburban areas which makes you wonder what the cities are like. people are only shown on massive estates. the gore was unexpected, but the people around me seemed shocked and impressed. sharlto copley does menace very well.

the most staggering thing about the movie was the result of max's struggle to get to elysium. it would be spoiling to say exactly what, but the final scenes show how truly heartless the wealthy were, if not the people, than at least the government. and it was funny that elysium was so small. only billionaires need apply for citizenship to that country.
Theresa DeLucci
8. theresa_delucci
I went with a group of nine people tonight and only one liked it. There was audible snickering at certain parts (not just from our row.) Sharlto Copley and Diego Luna were excellent, but otherwise the characters were simultaneously overwrought yet extremely flimsy. What a shame. I loved District 9. Visually, Elysium was beautiful and I appreciated the unexpected realistic gore, but so much of the worldbuilding was ludicrous and the basic message was rich, but explored really poorly.

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