The best part about sci-fi is that socially and politically sensitive subjects can be freely discussed and commented on, and in the process, the issues can be re-framed so we can look it from another point of view. Neill Blomkamp did this to fantastic effect in District 9, which is a fairly heavy-handed commentary on apartheid. I’m sure it’s even more heavy-handed for people who were eye-witnesses to it. For Elysium, Blomkamp brings an even heavier hammer with him to express his feelings on universal health care, illegal immigration, and the “1%”. For me, the lack of nuance becomes a distraction. The characters are painted with such a black and white brush, that for the most part they fall into stereotypes and caricature. You see, in District 9, we have a reluctant hero, Wikus Van De Merwe, who actually works for “the man” and feels that he is doing the right thing. His arc is that he becomes a hybrid of the aliens he was part of subjugating, and in turn has to view the world from their eyes. Elysium fails to blur those lines. There are the “bad guys” — with the faces of a stoic, heartless politician (Jodie Foster), a stoic, weasely, heartless CEO (William Fichtner), a weasel-y, a testicle-less politician (Faran Tahir), and a psychopath with military grade weapons (Sharlto Copley, returning as a baddy after being the hero in District 9), and the “good guys”, who are represented by a rugged, suffering hero (Matt Damon), his beautiful, pseudo-love interest (Alice Braga), her daughter suffering from leukemia (Emma Tremblay), a Che-like revolutionary (Wagner Moura) who just wants equality for all (BTW, Che Guevara didn’t really want that), and a slew of suffering women and children who just want the technology of the medical beds on Elysium. The citizens of Elysium are faceless, and characterless. In fact, it doesn’t ever seem like anyone is even at home. Ever. So, without humanization, they become painted with the same brush as the ruthless Foster. Even thought this is a movie, the metaphor is strong enough that the message needs to be treated as commentary — and the lack of the subtle greys push the message awfully close to hyperbole. And hyperbole, regardless of the purity of the intention is still hyperbole
But lets talk about the movie as a movie.
Elysium opens up strong, and surprisingly slow, allowing us to get to know and care for our hero, Max, a boy who promises his best friend, Frey, that he will take her to Elysium — the man-made torus floating in orbit around the Earth, built by the rich to get them away from the overpopulated, polluted squalor of the Earth surface. Elysium lifestyle is utopian, where there are no problems or sickness, helped in large part by technology that can cure nearly everything except for brain death. But things don’t go too well for Max, and he ends up with a criminal record for stealing cars, and he ends up working in a factory, trying to keep his nose down and out of trouble. After a lethal dose of radiation in an on-the-job accident, Max turns to his connections in the criminal underground to get him to Elysium so he can heal himself. Head criminal/revolutionary freedom fighter Spider, agrees to help Max, but on condition that he does one last job. The first step into a spiral of worn-out story conceits that happen when you direct a great movie and the studios give you LOTS of money to make another — and then insist on telling you how to make a movie.
To help Max with his dying body, Spider’s team retrofits him with an exoskeleton that will make him as strong as the mechanical police force they will have to fight. So, now he is a superhero, albeit a flawed one — because his motivation is completely self-serving…the beginning of his arc.
But who is the foil? The callous politician Delacourt (Foster)? The CEO that didn’t care about Max’s welfare after the accident? Most likely, it is in the form of a sleeper agent Kruger (Copley) working within the Earthbound society, used by Delacourt to maintain chaos and remove Elysium from blame. So, Elysium becomes represented by the militaristic insanity of a violent, misogynistic ex-special agent. This would be fine in a Chuck Norris flick — not as much in a potentially smart, socially conscious film. Again, it detracts from the message and doesn’t allow it to hit the heart.
Act 2 is a nice game of cat and mouse, where Max is trying to evade Kruger and his men. We get to know Frey and her daughter, Matilda. Max gets to gain a little insight and reflection on being “a hippo”, which pushes him further down his character arc.
Then Act 3. Ugh. Act 3.
Act 3 crashes like Kruger’s out of control ship crashes into the serene pools and crafted topiary of Elysium. It dives into the typical summer fare that we have gotten used to and, hopefully, grown tired of. Running gun battles. Man against man fighting in exo-skeletons. Lots of hand-held camerawork to hide the fact that actors can’t really fight very well in practical exoskeletons. And an ending that feels so easily obtained and ridiculous that people who AREN’T away of the complexities of the issues, will say “SEE!?!? Look how easy it is to solve this problem” But really, the answer isn’t as simple as saying “repairum diseaseasum”.
Like District 9, the production value is tops. Visual effects work led by Image Engine (the guys who handled most of D9) is seamless. Not to leave out the supporting FX teams at Whiskytree, The Embassy, ILM, and others. Plus, WETA Workshop put their hand in for the practical robot stuff and makeup work. The camera work goes handheld quite a bit, especially, like I mentioned, in Act 3, but the DP never noticeably falls into the non-sensical pop-zooms that seems to be so popular and distracting. Although, much of the CG work around Elysium utilizes long-lenses to good effect. District 9 was supposed to feel like a documentary, so it was shot as such. Blomkamp and DP Trent Opaloch went with the idea that Elysium is a film, and shot it that way. Thankfully.
All in all, the film as a film is entertaining enough that its worth a viewing. As social commentary, it feels like choking on the message. I like a bit of room for seeing issues from both sides.