Review: ‘Elysium’ Thinks Big When It Thinks At All

By August 6, 2013
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Elysium Damon

Following 2009’s searing, low-budget/high-impact District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium demonstrably costs more and thinks less, with a fairly thin haves-vs.-have-nots allegory on a ruined planet that devolves into future-tech shootouts and exoskeleton wrasslin’. Elysium has bold-ish ideas and botched execution, winding up as a curiously less engaging rehash of his own earlier film. Compared to Pacific Rim or Oblivion or any of the other tediously dumb big-budget science-free science-fiction films of summer 2013, Elysium is a work of genius; once you take its grading off that forgiving curve, and look at it for what it is, the shine that comes off Elysium proves to be surface-level gloss.

In a ruined 2154 L.A., Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-con who has a good steady job at the robot-making factory. Max makes a living, barely, bolting together the robotic cops who hassle him about his parole status and beat him for failure to comply. The job’s bad enough, but he also takes a high dose of radiation on the factory floor, and the only place where his life can be saved is…Elysium. That’s the name of the orbiting playground for the .001% that hovers above the crowded, dirty Earth, where high-tech high-income execs like William Fichtner and Jodie Foster reside far away from the squalor and clamor down below. Elysium’s homes are Kardashian-level tacky, but each one comes with a medi-bed that can heal injuries and illness permanently, infallibly, and with less fuss than you or I would have going for a spray tan. Max wants to get to Elysium so as to not die from his on-the-job accident, but his ex-criminal associate Spider (Wagner Moura) thinks Max can win an even bigger victory…

Elysium Sharlto

Elysium snaps to life a little when Foster’s chilly, power-hungry head of security unleashes Sharlto Copley’s Earth-bound errand-boy Kruger, an ex-soldier with an upgraded body and a downgraded sense of morals. Bearded and bionic, delighting in unleashing new weapons on the defenseless and soon-to-be-dead, Kruger’s the riveting Caliban of this paradise, a monster kept behind the pretty facade of the current order for when threats and intruders have to be devoured. As he tries to get to Elysium, Damon’s not only forced to wear a heavy-looking powered exoskeleton but also an equally heavy and ungainly romantic subplot involving childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay).

Any similarities to District 9 are far from coincidental, as a working-stiff guy gets his body terminally modified and has to not only fight to save himself but also liberate a people. The plot device of the magic healing booths is fairly thin as well – what, there’s not one miracle machine on the surface of the planet for anyone in need to buy, beg, borrow or steal? Elysium is also a film where you can feel any attempt to think and talk about ideas or character slump and slide away as the film has to stoop, squat and stretch itself into a wholly conventional third-act action closer mandated by the production-line construction that goes into any film that costs over $40 million. And the finale, which is meant to be stirring, just represents an entirely different can of worms being opened both within the story and within the film itself.

Elysium fight

Blomkamp, as a writer-director, seems far more interested in making up ways for his characters to die than he does in making up ways his characters might seem to live; there’s plenty of explosion but damn little emotion, and all of Elysium’s big-scale space scenes can’t make up for the hollows and holes in it at the human level. THX-1138 filtered through Halo for the Xbox, Brave New World with more effects and less affect for a timid time of bloated blockbusters, Elysium squanders potential greatness, instead attaining costly mediocrity.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.