What happens when interesting ideas clash with summer blockbuster conventions? You get Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the surprise 2009 smash and critical favorite District 9. With a premise that inspires all sorts of fascinating moral, philosophical, theoretical and logistical questions and a story that plows right past those questions, Elysium seems unwilling to engage with ideas larger than ones we’ve already seen in millions of other movies. How will Matt Damon save the world? Will good triumph over evil? Will things explode? If you’re clamoring for answers to these questions, Elysium is the movie for you.
To be fair, Elysium isn’t uniformly tedious. The movie’s first twenty minutes are its most intriguing by far. We learn through flashback that Matt Damon’s impressively bald Max Da Costa lives on a future Earth (the year is 2179) irreparably marred by environmental damage. The planet’s rich elite now occupies the circular space station Elysium, with a structural design straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Meanwhile, the 99% toil in the increasingly dusty confines of our humble planet. Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, who dreamed even in childhood of escaping the squalor of his existence and heading for the greener, sleeker, brighter pastures on Elysium. His childhood friend Frey (played in adulthood by Alice Braga of I Am Legend) joined him in his hopes, but as the movie jumps thirty years ahead, Max is an ex-con and Frey a nurse with a terminally ill daughter. But when Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation during an accident at his thankless job, he decides to return to his childhood dreams and seek out Elysium once again.
So far, so good. Blomkamp does an excellent job of gradually revealing the exposition through visuals and subtle dialogue rather than bludgeoning us with a narrator spraying lukewarm exposition like fertilizer, and the art directors have constructed a convincing representation of an Earth permanently mired in desert-like conditions and overcrowding. The movie also shows flashes of humor in these opening moments: when a pushy robot asks Max to reveal the contents of his satchel while he’s on his way to work, Max grins and replies, “Hair products, mostly.”
Unfortunately, Elysium quickly abandons the idea that it will explore this interesting world that seems just close enough to our own to seem like a plausible future for us. How did the idea for Elysium came about? Who decided who was worthy to be a resident? How do the people on Earth feel (besides generically resentful)? What’s the economy like? The command structure? The relationship between the earthlings and the space cadets? It’s nice that Elysium encourages us to ask these questions, but it’s not so nice that it doesn’t seem remotely interested in answering them.
Instead, we get a familiar narrative that relentlessly avoids spinning off in unexpected directions or revealing greater dimensions. Max enlists the help of a gang to provide him with the necessary equipment and resources. Eventually, he ends up with a crucial piece of information downloaded into his brain Chuck-style and attracts the interest of Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, played by Jodie Foster.
That’s right, Jodie Foster’s in this movie too. Going in, I expected her performance to be the primary talking point of the human characters – after all, this is passionate, intense Jodie Foster we’re talking about. Except it’s not. Foster’s accent is overwrought, her demeanor stiff, her line readings stilted and her presence awkward. That’s right – Jodie Foster gives a bad performance in this movie. I’m as surprised as you, maybe more.
Then again, she’s not given much to work with. Elysium is the latest in a seemingly endless string of this year’s blockbusters that gives laughably short shrift to the regrettably few prominent female characters. Foster’s Secretary of Defense doesn’t have enough scenes for us to truly grasp her motivations or even learn her name, Jessica Delacourt (don’t be impressed that I knew it – I looked it up). Secretary Delacourt’s storyline builds to an exciting climactic moment in which she…gets (quite literally) tossed into a back room, never to be seen or heard from again. Braga, meanwhile, at least gets to save lives in the hospital while struggling with her child’s incurable leukemia, but her character is always defined by her relationship to Max, and her ultimate role in the central struggle is tangential at best. Why bother casting terrific actresses like Foster or even Braga (whose warm presence is refreshing in this often relentlessly grim movie) and then saddling them with the most pedestrian material possible?
On the bright side, Damon’s typical charisma kept me interested in his pursuit of Elysium even when the script neglects the character’s nuances and turns him into a generic action hero. Sharlto Copley of District 9 injects the movie with a burst of villainous energy as Kruger, a sleeper agent who tracks down insurgents on Earth for the Elysium government. Even hidden by a bushy beard (compensating for Damon’s dome?), Copley’s magnetism keeps his character from feeling stale, even when he becomes important at the expense of Foster and other marginal characters.
This movie’s most impressive accomplishments are largely technical, though they’re noteworthy all the same. Blomkamp really is a filmmaker worth entrusting with a sci-fi world of this kind – his camerawork lends urgency and a sense of chaos to this confused world, and he seems to delight in the machinery that serves as Earth’s new management structure. But his screenwriting needs work, or perhaps less studio interference. For a movie rich with thematic possibility, a climax featuring two men punching each other seems like a major cheat, and the movie’s assertions about the inequality divide and the anti-immigration parallels emerge disappointingly unambiguous. (The unearned happy ending does at least come with complications to which I didn’t expect the movie would commit.)
Watching Elysium, I felt like a student in a classroom, raising my hand with serious, thought-provoking questions while the teacher calls on students who ask questions they already know the answers to. Right before the teacher gets to me, he says, “I think that’s enough for me today.” I disagree. Elysium isn’t enough for me.