There are obvious parallels here not just to our modern political climate, but to many that stretch as far back as the dark ages, when the privileged preceded over vast empires of wealth while those in their shadows suffered a fate of diminutive importance. The difference, perhaps, is that the kingdoms of our past were victims of half-information and primitive values, whereas several modern cultures – while still skewered by power and money as pivotal advantages – have been privy to the concept of democracy, in which commoners have voices not easily as silenced. To hear “Elysium” tell it, first world nations have abolished a lot of those concepts in a moment of desperation, and in the 22nd century, when Earth’s population swelled so drastically that it undermined its prosperity, the wealthiest sector of humanity bought their way off of a worldwide slum and sought refuge on an artificial environment where sickness can be eradicated, fortune could be preserved, and human standards are monitored by a government clearly lacking in looking after the needs of its middle class. Oh, how the might of our once-flourishing civilizations has fallen.
Neill Blomkamp knows a great deal about these ideas, already displaying certain skill with the concept in “District 9,” and now takes the approach a step further. If his debut feature played like pencil sketches on the idea, however, then “Elysium” brings him closer to seeing the material as a full-fledged painting; the scope is more challenging, and the visuals are packaged in such a way that it creates a vast sense of space for characters constantly in pursuit of truth, each other, or some combination of the two. In a handful of aspiring filmmakers that have hard things to say about the state of our world and the histories we may be doomed to repeat, here is one who isn’t afraid to confront the future head-on and match it with hardened criticism.
The story comes across almost as a retelling of its predecessor, minus the presence of insect-like aliens. The hero is Max (Matt Damon), a lowly citizen of Earth whose isolated routine, following various run-ins with law enforcement, consists of hard labor, consistent prodding by mechanical law enforcement, and routine visits to an automated parole officer. In early scenes, we see him as a kid enamored with the image of Elysium gliding across the night sky. “One day I will take us there,” he tells his best childhood friend Frey. And even in a life progression that grows bleaker, he maintains those aspirations, even if they have grown somewhat sarcastic.
Alas, those dreams become more urgent when he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at his job, giving him a period of five days before death to find a way onto Elysium in order to restructure his molecular make-up and rid his body of the deadly toxins. No medical system on Earth is capable of offering such treatment, making the necessity for such a trip even more critical. But what are the odds he can get past the station’s strict no-fly zones? In an early scene, Elysium’s trigger-happy defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) shows no sympathy for such unfortunate people; when three rebel ships carrying sick citizens of Earth approach their atmosphere, she has them shot down without remorse. A later scene in which she is reprimanded by the president and then responds with right-wing rhetoric echoes the congressional speeches of Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq war; one does not doubt this was the director’s intended purpose, either.
The premise acts as the groundwork for a series of tactical action scenes that are bound by urgent time restrictions. Max’s only ticket to Elysium compels him to undertake a risky inside job for a computer hacker named Spider (Wagner Moura), who believes the visiting CEO of a cybernetics factory named John Carlyle (William Fichtner) may be carrying critical classified information on hacking the Elysium code inside his head, and wants to retrieve it before a ship takes him home. This sets another series of tense events in place when an ambush on Carlyle’s ship goes awry; Delacourt dispatches a rogue operative named Kruger (Sharlto Copey) to retrieve that information before it is fully decoded, and a deadly cat-and-mouse game ensues as Max comes into possession of said information. The Kruger character is not exactly distinguished, either; rough on the exterior and just as venomous, his pursuit of Max is punctuated by several sequences of him blowing others into chunks of flesh with military weapons, punching women in the mouth and shouting obscenities down long passageways before brutally attacking his victims. To call him the most unpleasant villain in recent movie history understates the obvious.
Blomkamp’s use of the world “Elysium” in the title is a clever irony; conceptualized by the Greeks as utopian afterlife for “righteous” souls blessed by the Gods, he uses the concept as a device to create separation between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken, echoing a modern American system in which political ideologies and notions of “wealth balance” are polarized by a party system with differing sensibilities. The core allegorical implication in his story, however, is the concept of universal healthcare, and though none of his material directly alludes to that reasoning, the parallels are distinct. The wealthy are cocooned in a society so perfected by technical and medical breakthroughs that they seem displaced in time, while the middle class that is sentenced to a crumbling Earth gradually erodes into a state of unrest that suggests an almost passive cultural cleansing. The effect is disarming, if for no other reason than the director’s knack for viewing such ideals through stark realism. Despite its unbound scope, Elysium emerges not as this grandiose special effect but as a legitimate location with vast detail, and Earth looks exactly like we suspect it would if overrun by destitution; high rises are stripped bare and become nests for the homeless, while dirt paths and hospital hallways are swarming with individuals who have quietly made peace with their dire circumstances, and are submissive to what they will bring.
The drawback to all of these ideas is that most directors often bite off more than they can really chew, and Blomkamp is no different. The movie’s pace is drastically uneven – slow in early scenes, underwritten in others, and then ramped up beyond comprehension once the central conflict gets underway. A lot of his critical fight scenes are staged wrong, too. One of the annoying points of “District 9,” was the wobbly use of handheld cameras that left the actions feeling uncertain; in this movie, a critical final fight between Max and Kruger is shot in the same technique, and there is so much blurred by the non-stop movement and editing that it creates more frustration than interest. And despite the talent attached to this picture, for the life of me I can’t figure out what the motivation was in casting certain names in critical roles. Damon is solid and plausible as Max, but Jodie Foster as the blue-blooded defense secretary aboard Elysium seems curiously out of place; her accent plays like a marriage of two or three dialects too vague to detect, and her demeanor is not only too calm for the character, but also too vulnerable. I suspect her presence is a ruse to hide the notion that Kruger is the film’s definitive antagonist, but Copley’s acting here is so over-the-top that the movie places him in the center long before the story requires him to be. By then, the Foster character is so diminished we almost forget she was there in the first place.
“District 9” had many admirers, most of whom were enthralled by the idea that it could ask such pivotal questions through a camera lens that saw its world through such realistic but offbeat means. I was not one of those fans; while I valued the nerve Blomkamp possessed on the subject matter, his film was not a cohesive collection of mood or tone, and the material was overwrought with an impression of displaced feeling. “Elysium” contains isolated moments that speak with more sophisticated reasoning, and its attitude towards characters is organic without sacrificing the empathy. Yet the endeavor is not entirely without fault, and a series of technical conundrums come dangerously close to unraveling the movie’s message. But there is little doubt that his education is only beginning in feature film, and by a third picture I suspect we will be dealing with a visionary whose skills behind the camera will, at that point, be more fully consummated. In a leading example, I contemplate what critics of James Cameron must have thought after he broke into the movies with “Piranha 2”; could any of them at that moment have predicted he would go on to make “Titanic” or “Avatar,” the two most profitable movies ever made?
This is the kind of movie that works for what it is – a parable on political extremities with insightful narrative impulses and brilliantly kinetic action sequences – but maybe more experience will allow his message to come through in more powerful and resonating ways the next time around.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Sci-Fi/Action (US); 2013; Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout; Running Time: 109 Minutes
Matt Damon: Max
Jodie Foster: Delacourt
Sharlto Copley: Kruger
Alice Braga: Frey
Diego Luna: Julio
Wagner Moura: Spider
Produced by Sue Baden-Powell, Bill Block, Victoria Burkhart , Simon Kinberg and Stacy Perskie; Directed and written by Neill Blomkamp