'Elysium' Review

The 99 Percent finally triumphs—with a helping hand from Matt ‘Jesus’ Damon

August 9, 2013

It seems to me that Elysium has its heroes and villains confused.

I mean this not in a reactionary, "the military-industrial complex and the wealthy one percenters should crush the hopes and dreams of the plebs" way. Rather, it seems to me that, from Hollywood’s typical perspective, the heroes and villains are backwards.

The people who live on Elysium—a space station hovering over an Earth that, by 2154, has devolved into a Malthusian nightmare of need, want, and disease—are a gentle, peaceful race. Through what amounts to homegrown magic, they have cured their sick. They live in harmony with one another. They frolic in pools and on grassy plains. They work hard while maintaining a family life. They care for their people. They keep the ecosystem within which they live in careful balance: The Elysians do not pollute the air or the water. Though we don’t see it, I imagine they use all parts of the buffalo after killing it, thanking the beast for his sacrifice.

Yet their world is under attack. Yes, some of their citizens are mistrustful of the "civilization" below and take questionable actions to defend what is theirs—but they have good reason to be afraid. Hordes of brigands led by criminals and bandits storm their celestial gates. Indeed, the leader in the attack chronicled in this film is a felon several times over, a car thief who has committed assault with a deadly weapon. These people spread like the plague, pillaging the land, polluting the world, and overpopulating with abandon.

In other words, the Elysians are essentially latter day Na’vi (Avatar), protecting their medical advances like so much Unobtainium. They are the final hidden band of samurai in rapidly modernizing Japan (The Last Samurai). They are the noble Lakota, struggling to maintain their way of life (Dances with Wolves) as modernity encroaches.

However, director Neil Blomkamp and star Matt Damon would have us believe that the Elysians are the villains of this picture.

It’s all quite odd.

Damon stars as Max, an Earth-born orphan who dreams of one day moving to the eponymous space station. Stuck doing manual labor in the hopes of one day scrounging up enough cash to make the trip skyward, Max finds himself crushed by the relentless wheels of capitalism: robot police break his arm for cracking wise; uncaring factory bosses use him up and toss him out like so much garbage; and health care is unavailable for the likes of gutter rats like him.

Dying of radiation poisoning, Max’s only option is to make a run for Elysium, where magical healing beds can instantly destroy any disease, mend any bone, and fix any facial deformity, so long as brain function remains. The inhabitants of the space station have, for whatever reason, decided to keep this technology out of the hands of Earthlings. As no motivation is given, we are left to assume that it’s simple disgust for their poverty.

To get to Elysium, Max’ll have to do a favor for a coyote by the name of Spider (Wagner Moura): he must have an exoskeleton welded to his skeleton and hijack the contents of billionaire businessman John Carlyle’s (William Fichtner) brain.

Spider and Max get more than they bargained for. It turns out that Carlyle was running a scam with Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who is none too pleased that the space station’s current president is unable—or unwilling—to keep illegal immigrants from Earth out. To keep her dastardly plans a secret, Delacourt calls in Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a maniac with a taste for the theatrical and a passion for hurting people.

If Max succeeds—despite a stab wound below the right breast, vicious cuts to his palms, and the knowledge that pulling off his plan will result in his own death—he will redeem the world. If he fails, all shall perish.

It’s a bit much. There’s only room for one overt Christ figure each summer, and Man of Steel handled those duties nicely back in June.

Blomkamp picks up where he left off in District 9. He still has a fascination with urban sprawl, extreme poverty, man’s inhumanity, and gussied up weapons—and he still loves to watch human bodies explode.

Blomkamp wrings another fine performance out of Sharlto Copley, with whom he worked on District 9. Copley’s Kruger is a vicious, demented creep, but he also has more charisma than the rest of the cast combined. He’s the only one out there having any fun, from the looks of things. Damon is given little to work with, though his muted charm and distinctive mannerisms—the slight head tilts, the lingering pauses, the half-smiles that coax a laugh out of whomever he’s talking to—serve him well here. Meanwhile, Foster is burdened with the hardest-to-discern accent I’ve ever encountered on film. Given the multinational nature of Elysium, it makes little sense to saddle her with what I believe to be a South African accent. Possibly French? Hard to say.

Elysium is lighter on action than its advertising campaign would have you believe. However, the sequences that are there are well done, if a bit choppy. The action veers from dramatic slow-motion shots of exploding bullets to hyper-edited hand-to-hand combat with annoying regularity.

These complaints aside, Elyisum is a modestly entertaining sci-fi action flick, assuming one is comfortable with copious gore and unsubtle allegory.

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