It’s difficult for me to separate my immense disappointment for this second effort by Neil Blokamp from an assessment of this film vis-a-vis the usual pulp sci-fi that I quite enjoy. I don’t think I’ll bother; I was cringing in the cinema and wondering if there was anything else I could wash my movie-palate out with afterwards.
Elysium fails as a compelling (heck, coherent) political statement and is mediocre as an action flick. It’s underdeveloped as a sci-fi exploration, and unbearably shallow as a drama. The production design was nice though.
Elysium shares a lot of points with the terrible Andrew Niccol movie In Time (the one starring Justin Timberlake): the Occupy Wall Street-inspired political position, the economic illiteracy, the underwhelming action, hypocritical “good” characters, and being awful movies from directors with a great earlier work.
Some spoilers follow.
Blokamp gives us a vision of LA a hundred years in the future, the ghetto (or maybe Mexican slums, given how he described his inspiration in an interview) to the orbital colony Elysium’s paradise. Life is cheap and honest work hard to come by, despite Matt Damon’s reformed intentions. An occupational accident leads Damon to turn back to criminality, and by chance he ends up in possession of a McGuffin that has Jodie Foster send a homeless-looking Sharlto Copley out to get him.
Elysium throws in a bunch of hot-button controversial US political issues: immigration, healthcare, the economic divide, but doesn’t argue its position beyond depicting evil rich people hoarding miraculous medical technology from poor people. It’s a cartoonish depiction with a corresponding persuasive weight. Actually maybe less. Morally worse behaviour is glossed over without a second thought: Damon goes off to commit felony murder on the jerk CEO rather than the supervisor who was directly culpable for Damon’s accident; people smugglers who take large amounts of money from desperate people and then send them to get blown up are portrayed as “good guys”. There are interesting and more grey possibilities: the supervisor is a non-rich surface-dweller who has been co-opted by the evil-rich-space-people’s system; the President lives in space but blocks Jodie Foster’s violent tactics; Kruger lives on the surface, has clearly gone through a lot and not been rewarded, and actively desires to continue fighting for the system – any of these could be fleshed out to make the movie movie deeper and more convincing. And it’s kind of sad that in a Mexico analogue with a primarily Hispanic population, it’s the one white guy who becomes the saviour.
The storyline is disjointed, and overcomplicates and stretched out a simple premise; the pacing is lousy, tedious and unnecessary flashbacks abound, and many of the important incidents just randomly occur (eg the explosion in the ship as it arrives on Elysium). A bunch of time is spent getting Damon into that exosuit, but it’s completely irrelevant to the storyline, and not especially critical to the action scenes. The mother and child were initially interesting, but soon dissipated into the baldest form of emotional manipulation, leaving just about all the characters one-dimensional and unsympathetic. I still felt some sympathy for Damon, but not as much as I should have given the amount of effort they spent doing that; and I still liked Kruger and “his boys”, since they looked like the only people having fun in the movie.
While not as bad as Paul Greengrass or Michael Bay, the action suffers from that stupid trendy shaky-cam. And there’s actually not much of it – despite what you might expect, there’s just a single fight against robots, and a couple of encounters with Copley’s character.
The original point of science-fiction (or as some used to say, speculative-fiction) is to explore another set of circumstances, hopefully to illuminate our own; unfortunately Elysium pares away all the complex questions beyond mustache-twirling evil-rich-people with no motives fighting saintlike criminals and little kids. And the ending is terrible – incredible clumsiness aside, the resolution leaves all sorts of obvious unanswered questions about the practicality of what is to happen, but is portrayed as noble and utopian, cutting off before any of the consequences can be explored. Despite wanting closure on the story, it just looked really silly.