Elysium Might Have Too Much Action!

Elysium - Stephanie Blomkamp

The idea of setting a film in a world where the 1% live on a giant space station and all of Earth is a third world country is a good one, but I think there might actually be too much action in it and the allegory might be a bit too on the nose. Still, even with too much action, it’s the smartest big-budget movie of the summer and quite possibly the one of the smartest of the year.

We’re introduced to the world of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium with tracking shots of what looks to be a South American slum, but turns out to be Los Angeles in 2158. It doesn’t take much longer to learn that the wealthy and privileged moved from the battered, drained planet to live on a gigantic space station – where all sciences have continued to flourish – but maybe not as much as medical science: technology can now cure all know ailments and prevent aging.

In Los Angeles we follow Max (Matt Damon) as he works in a factory for a minimum wage and is plagued by kids begging money and grown-ups who disdain those lucky enough to have a job. On Elysium, we see a woman in a bikini lie down in a home medical bay which then cures her of cancer. We also see Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) order three shuttles of illegals shot down – nothing can sully paradise!

An accident – compounded by an uncaring foreman – exposes Max to a lethal dose of radiation and, when the company’s ultra-rich owner (William Fichtner) spots in a bed in the first aid room, he orders him out before he can contaminate the bed and force the expense of replacing it.

Max, with five days of life left, decides to return to his days as a thief in order to secure a ride to Elysium and the chance at a full recovery. Meanwhile, in orbit, Elysium’s President Patel (Faran Tahir) chastises Delacourt for her actions – prompting her to plot an electronic coup, for which she enlists Kruger (Sharlto Copley), her personal assassin.

Curious - French

In order to make the trip to Elysium, Max has to try to persuade Spider (Wagner Moura), the local crime boss, to give him a way to get to Elysium. Spider has plans to change things on Elysium too, so he arranges an exo-skeleton for Max, to give him an edge in obtaining the data he needs to affect that change. The data comes from John Carlyle – Max’s former employer – which sets of alarms for Delacourt and the rest of the film is, in essence, Max trying to get to Elysium and Kruger trying to stop him.

There’s an arc involving a woman Max knew when they were younger, Frey (Alice Braga), and her daughter (Emma Tremblay), who suffers from leukemia, but it’s mostly a plot device – though Braga has a fierce energy that keeps that arc from feeling mechanical.

In the end, though Max becomes a kind of avatar of 99%, while Delacourt and Kruger are avatars of the 1%. Though the last act of Elysium comes down to a blowout brawl between Max and Kruger – at the behest of Delacourt – it is the one aspect of the film that drags its overall quality down a bit. About half of the time spent in the Max/Kruger confrontations could have been used to further develop Frey – or play up Max’s resourcefulness as he led Kruger on a merry chase. Or, perhaps, Blomkamp could have given us more of a look at how Delacourt become the one-note nasty that she is (there must have been juicy drama there!).

Matt Damon is extremely well cast for the lead – even though he might be almost as pretty as the young Paul Newman, he’s also as good an actor and makes one of the best everyman leads in the world. With his shaved head and that exo-skeleton hooked up to him, Max is an avatar of the 99% – even to being more than a bit selfish.

As Delacourt, Jodie Foster doesn’t really have much to do besides be the smart, controlled, evil one but she makes more of it that I expect was on the page. There’s a bit of a manic edge to her defense of Elysium – and the plan for the coup – that makes the character’s lack of depth seem more like supreme focus.

Max vs, Kruger - Kimberly French

Sharlto Copley was also given a pretty one-note character, but he had a lot of fun with it. I would have liked to see less fighting between Kruger and Max, and more of a kind of chess-match-of-the-mind chase that explored Kruger’s backstory a bit – it would have been interesting to see how he became Delacourt’s go-to assassin.

Alice Braga is always terrific, but again, she really didn’t have that much to do. She and Damon have great chemistry and I’d like to see them do more films together.

Visually, Elysium is dazzling. Both the extreme poverty of Earth and the luxury of Elysium the home of the wealthy are completely believable. The film’s effects – CG and practical – are seamless.

Blomkamp keeps things moving well throughout, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get a real sense of the world(s) these people live in. By and large his script is intelligent right up until Max and Kruger start fighting – then picks up in the very end.

I didn’t like Elysium much as District 9, but that’s like saying I didn’t like Touch of Evil as much as Citizen Kane. In each case, the director set himself a ridiculously high bar with his first film so my reaction was not disappointment, but relief that it was as good as it was – and that’s pretty good.

Full Grade: B+

Photos by Kimberly French/Courtesy of Tristar Pictures