At The Picture Show
Pssssst! I'm saying something important about society!
'Elysium' wastes its allegorical potential in what amounts to two hours of shallow social commentary
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Alice Braga, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster, Wagner Moura, Diego Luna and William Fichtner
Rated R / 1 hour, 49 minutes
August 9, 2013
(out of four)
The other day I saw Elysium conspicuously placed on a list of "brainy" Hollywood blockbusters. Which is no doubt what its makers want you to think – and more than likely it's exactly what they intended to make in the first place. But whatever brains it may have had were left on the cutting-room floor, displaced by a dumb action movie that doesn't even have the decency to make its dumb action entertaining (or coherent).
Like its predecessor - writer/director Neill Blomkamp's apartheid-themed Best Picture nominee District 9 - Elysium is a thinly veiled (like, rice paper thin) socioeconomic allegory wrapped inside a sci-fi action movie. But while the former managed to successfully pull off both at once - and provide a strong, and rather sweet, character piece - Blomkamp's follow-up demonstrates none of the same thoughtfulness, paying mere lip service to its supposed concerns.
This time, the rich/poor gap is exemplified by a space station hovering above a destitute, poverty-ridden Earth circa 2159. Named Elysium, the station is home to civilization's wealthiest and most powerful, a paradise without disease, without aging, without squalor, where seemingly no one does anything but lounge around poolside in their immaculately manicured backyards. If anyone ever gets sick, it's no bother - they've all got "Med Pods" in their living room, which will cure them instantaneously. Robots do the servants' work (apparently in this future, artificial intelligence has not yet become sentient - just you wait, Elysium citizens, just you wait!), while the 99 percent toil away in poverty on an overly populated planet.
The commentary practically writes itself, which may explain why Blomkamp didn't actually bother writing it with any depth. Instead, what could have been a scathing indictment of modern capitalism is reduced to empty sentiment. It could have been a satire, too - maybe it even thinks it is one - only it has no sense of humor to speak of*. And when it comes down to it, as the silly way the third act plays out makes abundantly clear, Elysium doesn't even have the courage of its own convictions.
* William Fichtner, as a loathsome CEO overseeing one of his factories on Earth, seems to be the only person who's the slightest bit aware of the premise's comedic potential. His sardonic inflections turn otherwise banal dialogue into absolute gold, seemingly against the movie's own intentions. In a related note: More movies should have William Fichtner in them.
Its storytelling is every bit as clunky as its messaging. We open with an expository flashback in which we meet a young boy named Max and a young girl named Frey. They live on Earth, and they are in puppy love, and heroic Max dreams of one day going to Elysium. This opening exists to give a false sense of context - and a false sense of character - to the grown-up Max (Matt Damon), a tattooed career criminal trying to turn his life around, and the grown-up Frey (Alice Braga), a kindly nurse with a daughter dying of leukemia conveniently at the same exact time that Max is planning a rogue mission to Elysium where leukemia can be cured within seconds.
The whole daughter subplot is so cheaply, cynically plopped into the movie, it just reeks of studio notes. Let's go ahead and give him a childhood sweetheart. And - ooh, ooh! - maybe a dying kid, too! Then we can pretend this movie has emotional heft. But instead of resonance, it feels like screenplay machinery; and instead of putting a human face on class-based health-care disparity, it just comes across as not only a shallow contrivance, but a needless one. The commentary, in theory, is strong enough to speak for itself; we don't need a dying child - especially one treated as little more than a prop - to make it feel important. Or we wouldn't, anyway, if the film had taken the time to flesh out its allegory.
That's emblematic of the film's intellectual laziness as a whole. Which would be easier to forgive if the action - again, a strong point in District 9 - weren't so gracelessly chopped together. Poor Matt Damon - he must have gone through all that effort to bulk up, and put in all that time to perfect his stunt work, and it's mostly lost in a jumble of cramped, shaky-cam photography*. A little less of that and we might have had more time to admire Philip Ivey's production design.
* One of the few exceptions is a heist sequence, which you can see in the clip below. If only the rest of the action were this well-executed.
Damon does as well as he can given the light material, but it's hard to look too bad compared to Jodie Foster's staggeringly awful performance as Elysium's villainous defense secretary, from her comically indecipherable accent to the way she overplays every one of her facial expressions. I really have no explanation for the performance and it will remain one of the great mysteries of 21st Century cinema. I honestly have no idea what it is she's trying to do.
The film, on the other hand, is all too clear about what it's trying to do, and say, and apparently feels the sentiment itself is all that's necessary. Good dystopia and good satire work the way they do - more often than not, anyway - because the worlds they present come uncomfortably close to the realities of the time and place in which they were created. The point of Elysium is that the Elysium/Earth dichotomy essentially already exists - which is true. And there's enough substance in that truth to fill hundreds of movies. But somehow Blomkamp, for all the fertile material at his disposal, never does anything but just repeat his basic conceit over and over again.
Read more by Chris Bellamy