It’s difficult to say, ultimately, what makes Elysium, the latest movie from the South African director Neill Blomkamp, less than completely satisfying. I liked his previous film, District 9, well enough, though I had similar complaints about it, which I’ll get to shortly. I like Jodie Foster and Matt Damon, and almost without a doubt Damon was cast due to his near-universal likability. I like it when action movies or science fiction have an underlying theme, and similarly I like a little visual flair injected in generally more thought-provoking movies.
Why, then, did I begin fidgeting uncomfortably in my seat half-way through the movie? Why did I not cheer for Matt Damon as he took down the entire corrupt system, freeing the poor masses? I suppose it begins with a prologue flashback, establishing the film immediately as one that does not take itself too seriously. A child on a swing, being counseled by a nun, is told he is special and will do great things, and he promises his little girlfriend that he will one day take her to Elysium. The entire scene is shot with the sort of coloration and blurriness to suggest not only poor production value, but a lack of innovation on the part of the filmmaker. The child playing the young Max, who grows up to be Matt Damon, is beyond wooden in his line reading, failing entirely to deliver the correct emotional responses we would normally expect here. I don’t want to saddle the entire production’s faults on this child, however; the flashbacks were simply poorly conceived – other than a few things that could just as easily be explained in dialogue, the flashbacks serve no purpose, slow the story down immensely, and never fails to elicit a groan from those paying attention to the acting, which is not at all consistent with the adult character of Max.
The other thing that is established immediately is the basic premise – the rich have left the polluted, overpopulated Earth, and now reside on a space station called Elysium, enjoying almost magically amazing healthcare and garden parties. They do not care for the suffering of the human beings below them, allowing them to die in thousands of diseases which are easily cured there. No time is spent establishing how such dire difference in medical technology was arrived at. We instead are launched, after the flashbacks, into illustration of the evil that is border control – three shuttles bound for Elysium in search of healthcare take off, and are promptly, and evidently illegally, shot down by Jodie Foster and her brutal henchmen Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley, who was the protagonist in District 9.
That part of the movie works. We are shown the plight of the Earth’s population, and we want something done about it. The problem is that the actual plot of Elysium has little to do with that, the micro story of Max’s struggle does not mirror that of the society he is meant to be redeeming. He is an arrogant ex-convict and an anti-hero, who helps without meaning to, and sometimes quite unexpectedly, having established that his ultimate goal is his own survival. The rest of it, his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Frey and her daughter, is… Chuffa, as Bruce Willis would put it, nonsense that slows down the entire piece without saying anything new. Once it is established that the world of Elysium is unjust, the movie jumps right into action, and really does not explore that injustice any further. In fact, the emerging villains are not even the proper products of that injustice, but rogues themselves. If the border control measures which were blatantly illegal according to the movie itself were not being taken, would it be different? Would we feel as much pleasure, then, when Matt Damon ripped robots heads off? Probably not, and even those moments are unfortunately fleeting.
I went back to reread my review of District 9 to refresh my memory, and I wrote much the same thing then. The message is good, and the action is cool, but the two don’t align in some central way to make the merge of the two palatable. Max’s struggle is interesting, but it doesn’t really represent anything in the larger context, other than the fact that his actions trigger an entire sequence of events, entirely coincidentally, which bring about a change. Because that isn’t truly what he sought for the majority of the movie, the end seems pointless. Really, Blomkamp? Is that what ending the social inequality will take? A reformed car thief with an exo-skelleton that gives him powers? Or was there something more you wanted to say aside from showing us that something’s wrong with our society? Because we knew that already, and I frankly didn’t see anything else in the movie to think about for an extra second.