In 2009, a low budget science fiction called District 9 is released to critical praise and audience acceptance. The film becomes a box-office success and scores four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The key to the film’s success was that not only was the film an effective and exciting action film, but also a well-written and thought provoking film which gave audiences more to chew on than comparable efforts. This approach has been clearly brought to District 9 director Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort; Elysium.
The year is 2154. Earth has become overpopulated and disease is everywhere. The wealthy have built themselves a space station with a simulated atmosphere called Elysium where they can continue their decadent lifestyles. For citizens of Elysium, every need is met. This includes machines which can heal people of nearly any disease. Everyone else lives in the slums of Earth. Max (Matt Damon) is a former criminal on Earth who, after an accident at work, is exposed to high levels of radiation which will kill him in a matter of days. Max knows that on Elysium there is technology which can save him. He begins his plan to make it to the upper class space station, which puts him on a path with Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a mercenary working for Delacourt on Earth.
Where District 9 was really about racism, Elysium is about class warfare, and more specifically the distribution of healthcare amidst classes. The message is pretty clear; it’s wrong that the upper class have unlimited access to healthcare while the poor need to struggle for it. There isn’t much subtlety to the themes of the film and I also think the film is guilty of simplifying the real issue. That said, I still appreciate that those themes were there at all. Audiences have something to think about and to its credit I feel Elysium captures the zeitgeist pretty well.
If the ideas feel secondary here, it’s because Elysium is an action film first, and as an action film I’d say it works quite well. The metal exoskeleton Max is equipped to leads to some fun action beats and an exciting fight between Max and Kruger. The sci-fi weaponry is also pretty cool and I like the distinction between the futuristic but clearly “thrown together” weapons from Earth versus the sleek and more advanced weapons found on Elysium. The fact that the film is also rated R gives the film an appropriate sense of grit and brutality. This is a dark future and the violence reflects that.
Where District 9 was a fairly low-budget production, Elsyium’s budget is three times the size and it shows. The special effects here are incredible. They aren’t as immediately impressive as something like Avatar or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but it’s impressive how seamlessly the practical effects and CGI were blended. I also admire how the effects are never the center piece and are always there to serve the story. The general production design is quite strong. The slums of Earth look appropriately worn down and broken, while the world of Elysium is elegant and sharp. On a more personal level, I found it highly amusing that the look of Elysium was highly reminiscent to the Citadel from the Mass Effect video game series. It was pretty exciting to see that on film.
Where the film suffers most is its characters. While none of them are awful, most of them are defined in broad strokes and remain static throughout the film. Jessica Delacourt, the main villain is a pretty generic evil rich person determined to protect the purity of her class. She doesn’t come off as particularly interesting or threatening. I kind of like Foster’s performance, but the character is poorly written. The same can be said for Kruger, the mercenary. The script goes so far out of its way to make Kruger the most evil villain possible that it becomes silly. Sharlto Copley actually does make the character work to an extent, but again, the writing is flawed. There’s also a sort-of love interest played by Alice Braga. This character is boring and almost entirely disposable were it not for the third act where she becomes important. On the plus side, Matt Damon makes for a good lead. The character isn’t particularly interesting on paper, but he is sympathetic and Damon brings a lot of charm and likability to the part.
Elysium is a very flawed work. The themes and characters are simplified, and the writing dips into clichés and tropes more often than it should. There’s also some really weak flashbacks which are brought up far too often. Still, even with all its flaws I do like Elysium. The action is fun and exciting, the world created is interesting, the visual effects are excellent, and there are higher ideas and a purpose motivating the whole thing. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is very good and certainly one of the better films I’ve seen all summer.