Director Neill Blomkamp returns with another dystopian Sci-fi epic Elysium, and like his debut film District 9, it wears its politics on its sleeve and has no time for subtlety. Matt Damon stars as Max, a reformed car thief in a remarkably overpopulated, polluted and dying Los Angeles. But while the working poor and impoverished live on the surface of Earth, the planet’s richest residents live on a luxurious, climate controlled space station called Elysium, which has also eliminated disease. It resides within Earth’s view.
That’s the gist of Elysium: The rich people live endless lives of luxury in the stars and everyone else works, lives and dies on the ground. To his credit, Blomkamp’s version of the future is incredibly detailed and not exactly farfetched. The architecture is remarkably similar to the favelas in Brazil, and employment lines are nothing new in U.S. history. The automated police are eerily believable and visually impressive, and the governmental bureaucracy is nothing new, just exponentially more frustrating.
Visually, Blomkamp relies heavily on handheld cameras to create the sort of you-are-there rawness of some documentary films. While this works at times, establishing immediacy and a involving the audience, it’s also exhausting, and a few years too late in its relevance. The film is already remarkably detailed, using shaky cam doesn’t heighten the immersion, it breaks it. This is particularly true of the film’s hand-to-hand combat scenes which begin to impress, but eventually unravel into confusing, jostling messes.
But beyond the film’s rich scenic detail, is a story that is equal parts predictable and over-simplified. Damon’s character is given detail, and reasonable motivations for his actions, but almost every other character’s behavior only exists to propel the story. William Fichtner plays a heartless business man who sees his employees as replaceable parts. Jodie Foster vamps as Delacourt, Elysium’s gatekeeper. Alice Braga plays Frey, the closest thing to Max’s love interest.
One of the film’s bright spots is Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley. Demonstrating his range, Copley plays Kruger, the film’s psychopathic antagonist. Copley plays him as someone who genuinely enjoys his deranged behavior, and the result is both menacing and entertaining. As a mercenary tasked with tracking Damon’s character, Kruger has no problem doing awful things to get what he wants.
Elysium‘s plot is in no danger of unraveling, but that’s because it’s underserved. For a film that spends so much time on the visual detail of the world it inhabits, there’s not much for anyone to do in it. Max needs to get to Elysium. Delacourt doesn’t want him to get to Elysium. Kruger tries to stop him. The movie introduces more concepts than it has time or interest to address and the film’s conclusion wraps things up nicely in a resolution that almost belongs in another movie.
It’s difficult to tell whether Elysium suffers from a scope that is too broad or a desire to couch an action movie within some extremely broad social commentary, but the reality is it suffers from both. It’s not a horrible film by any means, but it’s not exactly well developed either.