by Kathie Smith
This summer, there have been a lot of alarm bells sounded about how audiences aren’t flocking to this summer’s Hollywood blockbusters the way they had been in previous years. After the relatively disappointing box-office performance of tentpoles like Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger, the weight of the failing blockbuster has fallen onto Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s highly anticipated follow-up to the financially and critically successful District 9 (2009), to try to rescue the summer movie season. Perhaps that’s why the recent marketing for the film has carried more than a hint of desperation in its cries that “this film is different from the rest”—and at the very least, with its healthy dose of acerbic social commentary, Elysium certainly strives for loftier goals of profundity than your average summer film. After being bludgeoned over the head with its paper-thin themes, however, mostly with syrupy melodramatic weapons, even fans of District 9 may be wishing for a lighter touch on that eternal theme of good-versus-evil.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producers: Bill Block, Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg, Sue Baden-Powell, Victoria Burkhart
Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch
Editor: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith
Muisc: Ryan Amon
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharito Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna
US Theatrical Release: August 9, 2013
US Distributor: Sony Pictures
The year is 2154 and Earth has become a polluted and overpopulated cesspool. The rich have fled to a man-made colony on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere: a utopia called Elysium where the clothes are crisp, the grass is green and the houses are palatial. The well-heeled have abandoned Earth’s habitat but not its resources, ruling the masses with the iron fist of androids and exploiting the labor force with a familiar multinational gleam in their eyes. The keys to the kingdom, both above and below, are governed by a bureaucracy that sees itself as benevolent but is more blatantly personified by xenophobic Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who does not hesitate to use extreme force in protecting perfection from space-traveling refuges, most of them sick or disabled and seeking medical attention not available to the terrestrial.
Stuck in the slums of Los Angeles is our working-class hero, Max (Damon), indentured to a production line that manufactures the robots that police and oppress the masses. As a child, Max dreamed of going to Elysium with his friend and fellow orphan Frey, but his adult experience with the long arm of the law has forced him to fall in line with the rest of the poor, sick and disenfranchised. An industrial accident, however, delivers him a lethal dose of radiation and he is sent home with a bottle full of pills to die. In a no-win situation, Max is willing to do anything for a black-market ticket to Elysium where a medical bed, with a wave of an electro-scanning wand, will save his life. With the help of a 22nd-century gangster named Spider (Wagner Moura), Max and his buddy Julio (Diego Luna) sign on for a data heist that will take them to the fabled land beyond Hades.
As if the erosion of the paragon on Elysium and the need for revolution on Earth were a coincidence, Delacourt’s attempt to stage a coup—which apparently only requires an Elysium OS reboot—dovetails into Max’s mission impossible. Outfitted with a mechanical upgrade, turning him into a much more soulful mecha than any of Pacific Rim’s Jaegers, Max serendipitously intercepts the code to rule the world, and suddenly, it is game on. Kruger (Sharlto Copley), an earthbound black-ops vigilante and Tekken-like fighter, gives chase on orders to secure the data, but then goes rogue, deciding he wants Delacourt’s power for himself. A requisite romance emerges with reappearance of Frey (Alice Braga) and her young daughter in the final stages of leukemia—characters who presumably give meaning to Max’s eventual martyrdom.
After a promising start, this moral tale of the haves and have-nots gradually develops into a mixed bag of misbegotten metaphors made worse by an avalanche of distorted logic that will frustrate even the most forgiving imaginations. The film opens with awe-inspiring scenes of the transformed urban spaces of Earth—high rises that grow organically in ways that recall the city environments William Gibson vividly described in his Bridge trilogy novels. But then, possibly with the most relevant symbolic gesture of the film’s failings, the initial burst of creative vision gets tossed aside for more simplistic representations of the world, most problematically in a shantytown where the impoverished speak Spanish and listen to industrial noise; the villains, by contrast, listen to Bach and speak French.
Ultimately, though, the film’s careless storytelling is what brings Elysium down to Earth. Nothing can explain away, for instance, Delacourt’s inconsistent accent, Max’s erratic health and a political takeover based on a barely encrypted reboot. And on a thematic level, certainly no one at the beginning of the film would expect that by the end the power-mongering Delacourt would get a peaceful death while the opportunistic Spider becomes the savior of humanity. It turns out that the privileged aren’t the big problem in the future so much as the easily corruptible proletariats, as signified in the final showdown between Max and Kruger. None of these frustrating incongruities would matter, perhaps, if Elysium were not so hell-bent on delivering some sort of hard-hitting parable about our global socio-economic paradigm. Instead, we get a futuristic, action-soaked version of the Jerry Lewis telethon where the sick children, cue the angelic arias, must be saved. Just because Elysium might seem smarter than the average summer blockbuster doesn’t mean we should settle for this sloppy and insulting mess, however much studios may desperately hope we don’t notice.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)