(The following is written by Funkhouser contributor Matt Shorr)
A whole lot is going to happen in the next 140 years or so. Earth will get too cramped and dirty and violent for the wealthy, who will leave it for Elysium, the ultimate gated community a few hundred miles above the planet’s surface. Elysium is filled with the country club set and its progeny, who spend their days entertaining, meeting with government officials, and keeping disease and age at bay with medical pods that can cure almost anything. The proles on Earth are pissed off but largely passive about it, and the wealthy expect that the suffering of the less fortunate will be kept out of sight and out of mind. The government ensures this by shooting down stolen shuttles attempting to ferry ailing Earthlings to Elysium’s med-bays. But there is one man, aided by an unlikely group of rag-tag rebels, who changes all that…
If it sounds like that kind of movie– self-interested loner with a checkered past who, through the power of love and community and a short monologue from a kid, becomes a sacrificial hero and fights The Powers That Be–it is. And that’s the problem. Elysium has so many exhausted clichÃ©s, so many odious and single-dimensional villains, so many contrived plot points and maguffins, that it’s hard to take seriously. A serious discussion is what director Neill Blomkamp tries to generate with this movie, something he did so well with apartheid in District 9. In the end, though, Elysium winds up being more Prometheus than Moon.
This may be personal preference, but a movie that wants to make a point about a social issue should at least attempt to deal with some of the complexities of said issue. In Elysium, though, Jodie Foster’s Defense Secretary Delacourt and William Fichtner’s Armadyne CEO John Carlyle are heartless, conniving, irredeemable bastards. The audience can’t wait for them to get their comeuppance or meet a grisly end. Actually, almost everyone on Elysium is so clueless and arrogant that we wouldn’t care if the whole thing crashed and burned. (By the way, in addition to English, the rich speak French and the poor speak Spanish. Subtlety be damned.) Truth is, though, that not all or even most of the rich and powerful are Montgomery Burns. Does that make for better cinema? Hard to say.
If the villains are uniformly awful humans, our heroes begin mostly as selfish criminals who transform into crusaders for justice, access to quality health care, and respect for all, in about five days. For Matt Damon, it takes only the aforementioned love of a good woman and a story from her dying daughter about cooperation between a hippopotamus and meerkat. For Spider, a sort of barrio Godfather who orchestrates the usually ill-fated journeys to Elysium and hires Matt Damon for a “job,” his change of heart comes from…something.
It’s not all bad. Blomkamp’s willingness to approach this topic at all is heartening. As he did in District 9, which attacked the idea behind South Africa’s apartheid by introducing an actual alien species that is physically segregated from everyone else, he employs the science fiction genre to throw into sharp contrast the different experiences of the haves and have-nots. By again physically separating the two groups and giving the wealthy access to quite literally immortality, Blomkamp wants you to find parallels now. With the opening scenes, he basically dares you to think, “Elysium sounds nice and all, but it’s not like the rich today just wall themselves off and tell the poor they should be lucky to have dangerous, crap jobs and no health care even while the technology exists to make everyone’s lives better,” before smacking you in the face with the “oh, wait” part.
Also, being the first film in about 25 years I’ve seen in IMAX, Elysium sure does look good. The colors are sharp and vibrant on Elysium, implying that everything there is robust and healthy and rich; while the colors on Earth are dusty, grungy, slightly washed out, and well, Earth-tone. The special effects are fantastic, even subtle at times. As shuttles approach Elysium, the viewer sees small dots seamlessly resolve into houses, trees, pools, etc. The trip through the atmosphere from Earth to Elysium shows a beautifully blurred and dissipating area between the atmosphere and space. Nothing looks green-screened. Blomkamp also has fun with future technology, especially the weaponry, tending to think things through a little more than, say, Michael Bay or McG. Guns fail, next-gen exo-skeletons show incremental but not quantum-leap improvements over prior-gens, and Earthlings absorb and repurpose old technologies in believable ways presumably after Elysians have tired of them.
Overall, Elysium as class-struggle allegory disappoints in part because District 9 was so good, but the bigger issue is that the film delivers its message in too stark and hyperbolic a fashion. It doesn’t give the audience much chance to think about its themes. Maybe it isn’t fair to compare it to District 9, but it has been and will be. Nevertheless, Elysium is entertaining, worth the price of admission.
Verdict: see it. IMAX worked for this movie, but I wouldn’t upgrade if it would keep you from buying popcorn.