Blomkamp’s first full-length film, District 9, was ingeniously unique and signaled that we were witnessing the arrival of a new voice in filmmaking. District 9 was brilliant not only for its story – one that worked both as a summer popcorn flick and a social/political allegory – but for Blomkamp’s visual and artistic achievements despite his (relatively) low budget. With Elysium, Blomkamp has once again constructed a world which is both familiar and alien, but in the process of heaping so much social commentary onto his story he forgets to give his film the emotional center that made District 9 so compelling to watch.
The Earth we witness in Elysium is a burnt out shell of what we are lucky enough to live in today. The year is 2154 and terrestrial life is filled with crime, poverty and sickness. As the poor waste away on the surface of the planet, the wealthy and privileged occupy a place on Elysium, a man-made habitat that orbits Earth and essentially represents the pinnacle of human achievement and happiness. On Elysium, no one is sick because “med bays” are able to cure any disease or affliction in a matter of seconds. The technology is restricted to Elysium’s citizens who spend their days in pure luxury.
We witness the depths of humans’ suffering on Earth through the eyes of Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former car thief who is now trying to live life on the straight and narrow. When Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, his only hope is to sneak into Elysium and use one of the med bays. Standing in his way is Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) of the Civil Cooperation Bureau and her most valuable sleeper agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a man who very much enjoys his job. In exchange for an illegal ride to Elysium, Max must do one more job for his former boss, Spider (Wagner Moura), which results in Max hijacking information that could change Earth and Elysium forever.
Science fiction filmmakers have long injected their movies with political or social messages meant to generate discussion while also providing solid entertainment. Where District 9’s allegorical commentary on South African politics and its history of apartheid was subtle but unavoidable, Elysium shouts its myriad social concerns so loudly that the story and characters become mute. There is nothing wrong with using an artistic endeavor to address what is seen as social ills, but Blomkamp spends too much of his immense talent constructing parallels between 2154 and 2013 and gives hardly any thought to whether the audience is engaged with his story.
For example, Damon’s character represents the injustice that exists in the world of Elysium so we are expected to root for him and invest in his journey. Unfortunately, as written, the character of Max is not dynamic at all and feels like the “bad guy gone straight” archetype we’ve seen so many times before. He is our portal into this world and yet we don’t feel an emotional connection with him especially given the rather arbitrary stakes that are set up after he is exposed to radiation. (He will die in five days. Not four days? Not six days?) Aside from clearly being a hard worker, Max doesn’t have any qualities that would make him sympathetic.
On the other hand, Blomkamp spends excessive amounts of time showing just how horrible the people of Elysium must be to have abandoned their brothers and sisters for a better life. Phrases like “illegals,” “borders,” “healthcare,” “wealthy” and more are used so often that we are constantly being pulled out of the story and reminded about the injustices in our own world. Had Blomkamp been less didactic and more judicious, the film’s morals would have still been present and would have likely been much more effective.
Despite those complaints, Elysium is still a fantastic work of hardcore science fiction, thanks to the exhausting amount of thought and planning that went into creating the world of 2154. Though we can only see what this future looks like, Blomkamp is so detailed and thorough that audiences can easily imagine the horrible smells and ear-splitting noise that would fill a person’s daily life. The most enjoyable part of the film is seeing the many distinct robots that inhabit the world, each that is designed to perform a very specific task or fill a particular role. This type of layered realism is where Blomkamp shines and demonstrates his great skill as a director. Much like Oblivion, which came out earlier this year and had its own share of storytelling failures, Elysium is the type of movie worth watching with the sound off just to witness and appreciate the spectacular visuals.
Though not as satisfying as District 9, Elysium has its merits and proves once again that Blomkamp is one of the most exciting young directors working today.