Watching Elysium I had the feeling I was watching a film where a dodgy script or shooting problems were being fixed during the editing process with questionable success. By which I mean the whole thing didn’t really work. The pace seems wrong, the editing awry, the intentions rather confused. There’s something wrong here- too many (frankly irritating) shots in ‘slow motion’ in a vain attempt to add emotional resonance; a love story that doesn’t convince, protagonists that are one dimensional and under-developed without explained motivations. Plot-points that race by without explanation. God knows the whole thing looks utterly gorgeous, a huge budget, A-list cast, with seamless effects and slick design involving none other than Syd Mead. This should be a classic, but instead its rather a dud, possibly my biggest disappointment of 2013.
I expected rather more of Neill Blomkamp, particularly in mind of his excellent District 9, one of the most notable sci-fi films of the past decade.
At its heart, Elysium is the story of the chasm between rich and poor, a story that dates back in sci-fi films as far back as the great Metropolis, a film that did the job much better as it turns out. Elysium is a utopia, a space station in orbit that can be seen by the impoverished millions on Earth. On Elysium the rich and the beautiful live long (possibly endless?) lives free of hunger, pain and sickness, with each household having a miracle medical machine that cures all ills and injuries. It looks very clean, very idyllic. But beyond all that, we know nothing of Elysium. We know nothing of the citizens life of privilege, what they do all day, what political system operates. We don’t spend any time with the folks of Elysium to understand how they live, how they feel about the poor left behind on Earth. We don’t really even know if they depend on the labour of those left behind on Earth to maintain their utopian lives; its a plot point never developed, like so many others, another thread that when pulled starts to unravel the entire enterprise.
Our allegiance is obviously with the poor masses left behind on Earth. Here they have no miracle health machines, jobs appear scarce and unrewarding, poverty and crime are everywhere. Terrorist freedom fighters hijack transports to illegally emigrate to Elysium, but how they finance or organise/act out such efforts is never explained (getting a shuttle into orbit and onto the station is hardly as simple as crossing a border or smuggling aboard a freight lorry, but its depicted as if its easy enough to be a constant thorn of Elysium’s security force).
A (sincere enough) Matt Damon stars as Max, who in rather pointless flashbacks spent much of his childhood staring up at Elysium in the sky wishing he could go there. Adult Max is still on Earth, with a criminal record to his name and stuck in a manufacturing job in a factory building law enforcement robots (shades of the recent Total Recall remake there). Max meets childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) for the first time in years; she’s a doctor now, working in a hospital. Unknown to Max, Frey has a daughter who is terminally ill. An accident at work results in Max being irradiated with only days to live. His only hope is to reach Elysium, and he falls into his old criminal crowd, working for terrorists who recruit him in a raid on a high-ranking Elysium citizen who runs Max’s factory, John Carlyle. Carlyle has intel that Max and his cohorts can use to gain entry to the orbital station.
The complication is that Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (a criminally-underused Jodie Foster) has a scheme in place with Carlyle to instigate a coup in Elysium, placing Delacourt as president. Delacourt’s reasons for this act are vague, other than frustrations with the current leaders of the station, who she sees as weak and ineffectual against the tide of immigrants harassing her orbital paradise. In anycase, the data that Max manages to steal from Carlyle is the very data she needs to rewrite the stations operating system and put herself in charge. Being able to rewrite the stations operating system, this data in the wrong (terrorist) hands could also undo the utopia completely and bring the miracle health machines to the poor masses on Earth.
Cue several high-octane actions sequences that, while impressively staged are also rather boring. The problem being we don’t really care. My summary of the plot makes it seem an interesting film but there’s something wrong. Rather than be a genuine bad guy/criminal that eventually turns good in order to save the masses, Max is instead just a misfortunate who always had a heart of gold, there is little character arc here for him. Likewise Delacourt is a one-dimensional villain; we don’t really understand her motivations beyond a superficial level. How interesting this film might have been had Max been a criminal always out for himself in the cut-throat world he lives in, who finally learns to change in order to save those around him. He doesn’t change, he’s always just been a good boy at heart. Likewise if we had understood who Delacourt was, her allegiances to the system, her loved ones she strives to protect by maintaining their lives of privilege, we might have sympathised with her a little. Instead a complex premise is made simple black & white and weakened. When Delacourt finally meets her end, it happens almost in passing, incidental, as if it means nothing. It does the casting of someone like Foster in the role a real disservice. Indeed, all the parts here seem thankless, from Max to Frey to Elysium sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley, so wonderful in District 9), as one-dimensional a villain as you ever likely to meet in a movie. I expected Kruger (betrayed and sacked at one point by his masters) to switch allegiances and assist Max in his quest but no, he’s just a dumb soldier for hire with an aptitude for guns. Another wasted character arc. Which sums up the film really. Its pretty but vacuous. I had hoped for more.