“Elysium” seemed to hold the promise of an intelligent scifi-action-thriller with a political/social undercurrent. It also seemed to have the budget and the talent behind it to pull off such an ambitious concept, especially since the writer/director already has experience in this area with “District 9” (which I haven’t seen). Why then, did the movie turn out to be a complete piece of unswallowable crap? “Elysium” saddens and angers me and I’m not usually angered by a film simply because it’s not good.
So why do I think this is such a bad film? I’m afraid it will be hard to go into this without spoiling it so if you haven’t yet seen it, please be warned as of now: massively big spoilers are going to follow.
Still here? Okay. Let’s begin.
The main concept of Elysium is a dystopian future (a mere century from now, actually) where Earth has turned into an overpopulated, poor and diseased slum and a small group of super-rich people have managed to build a better life for themselves on a space station orbiting the planet, called Elysium. This space station, which looks suspiciously like a cross between the one from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the Citadel from the “Mass Effect” games, comes complete with artificial gravity and air, gorgeous houses, beautiful gardens and lots of pretty women in bikinis. It also looks suspiciously like Hollywood, California. Perhaps if the film had spent more time on Elysium, it would at least have been more agreeable to look at. Instead, two-thirds of it take place on Earth, more specifically the postapocalyptic garbage heap that is L.A., where hero Matt Damon is trying to make up for his previous life of crime by being a good-natured and obedient factory worker. Of course he also has a love interest, who is of course an estranged childhood friend. Of course he meets her again and tries to prove to her that he is now a decent guy. This whole portion of the film, like many other elements in it, is completely cut-&-paste and devoid of any soul or heart. It’s like the writer rationally knew he needed a love story to bring his protagonist more to life, but he didn’t really believe in it himself. In order to make us care more about the love interest, the movie gives her a cute, terminally ill daughter. Heavy-handed storytelling is an understatement, but I have to admit that the woman who plays the love-interest-nurse does an admirable job and at least made me care more about her and her daughter than about anyone else in the story, including the actual protagonist. On the other hand, she’s just not given enough to do, as is unfortunately so often the case in Hollywood movies.
The concept of “Elysium” is not a bad one. Sure, dystopian futures are hardly original, but the main idea here is interesting. I was hoping that the film would tell us a bit more about this terrible future: its politics, what people are like on Elysium, how it got this far. It does none of these things. Instead it focuses entirely on profanity-spewing, muscular tough guys with tattoos who shoot each other all day long and talk in gravelly voices, emphasising words like “fuck” and “kill” a lot. The only people from Elysium given any time to do anything are Jodie Foster’s one-dimensional arch-villain and her accomplice, some ridiculously caricatured, stuck-up snob who dies in the middle of the movie. It’s really too bad, since I like Jodie Foster a lot and what I was actually expecting when I saw the trailer was some kind of clever cat-and-mouse game between her and the Damon character. Instead, she gives the impression that she’s just sick of her job as protector of Elysium, and not in an “I’m starting to have moral qualms about this whole thing” kind of way, but just in a “how many innocent civilians can you blow up before it just gets boring” kind of way. So she sends out yet another caricature to do the dirty work: this time it’s an alcohol-swilling, bazooka-wielding, South-African lowlife who really doesn’t waste any opportunity to make it blindingly obvious that he’s South-African. His accent is so thick it’s really quite fascinating, if also distracting.
Anyway, Matt Damon gets into a lot of trouble, has an accident in the factory where he works, which will cause him to die in five days. This sets him on a quest to get to Elysium ASAP because they have technology there (in everyone’s home!) that can cure anyone in literally a few seconds… Of anything.
Pause for dramatic effect.
Think about this for a minute. Whether it’s cancer or broken bones, all you need to do is lie down in a glass cabinet and -poof- you’re healed. It’s like walking over a heart in an old video game. Let me check the brochure again, this was a science fiction film, right? I’m not a science geek, and I’m not saying that every sci-fi film should be scientifically sound but if you’re actually trying to comment on where we’re headed as a society, and you’re trying to present a bleak representation of a possible future, you should at least make some effort to be in the slightest bit, oh, I don’t know, believable, perhaps? Not insulting to your audience’s intelligence, in other words. This… This wouldn’t happen in Harry Potter. And it’s not like the writer-director shows the slightest bit of unease at his painfully cheap solution to the world’s health problems. In fact, he seems to be in love with it. In the most ridiculous scene I have seen that wasn’t intended to be comedy since “The Room”, the South-African thug’s face is blown off, as is shown in full, frontal, completely unnecessary gory detail, and yes, where his face used to be, there is now a big bloody hole with nothing in it. So they put him in one of those medical thingamajigs and guess what? His face grows right back! Tadaa! This is not the only magical technology in the film (there is also the uploading and downloading of passwords and data straight from one man’s brain into another) but this is so stupid, I thought I had fallen asleep and started having an absurd dream. But nope, I checked with my girlfriend who was also there and unless she had the same dream, this is actually in the movie.
Anyway, after long, long stretches of gritty action scenes set in ugly, graffiti-infested locales, the movie wraps up with Matt Damon sacrificing his life (*yawn*) and changing the whole system of Elysium so that now, the same medical technology that makes the inhabitants of Elysium so ridiculously immortal is given to everyone on Earth. Aww… And they lived happily ever after, the en– wait a minute? Wasn’t the big problem on Earth the massive overpopulation? And now they’re going to make everyone immortal? And suddenly everything’s solved? Apparently so, because the music signifies we have to be happy now and the words “written and directed by Neil Blomkamp” have made their way to the screen already.
See, the problem that I have, what makes me so angry with this movie – besides the horribly clumsy action scenes where I can’t see what’s going on and I just get seasick – is that everything about it seems to shout that this is a serious, mature sci-fi thriller about pressing social and political issues (because it’s gritty and thematic, you know) but it has absolutely nothing intelligent to say. In fact, it only has stupid things to say. Okay, so you want to talk about the massive gap between the haves and the have-nots? At least show us something from both sides instead of just one-dimensionally vilifying all the rich and powerful. There is not a single likable character on Elysium and even the bad ones get little attention. How much more interesting and even-handed would this have been if there had been someone there who took pity on the poor people on Earth? Or who wasn’t aware of the situation until they found out and then started taking action? You say overpopulation is a problem? Then don’t pretend you’re solving anything by bringing physical immortality to the poverty-stricken, crime-infested masses. If this were just a simple dumb action movie, I would have still been bored, but I’d have shrugged and moved on, but now I’m angry. You’ve taken it upon yourself to make a statement about the world, so do it! This is not it. This is taking some visual elements from Mass Effect (a video game that’s an infinitely superior science fiction story), adding some desperado lowlife action and throwing some money at Jodie Foster to have her look callous and evil for a few scenes. With all the money, all the talent and all the resources the filmmakers had at their disposal, how they could come up with something this loud, boorish and lazy is beyond me.
Some additional questions I have:
- Why did the nurse’s house look like a perfectly nice place even though it was in the middle of a postapocalyptic junkyard?
- What does the rest of the planet look like? What happens there? It’s like Earth only means L.A.
- What’s happened to film music in the last decade or so? Once more, we are treated to the same repetitive samples with the occasional blaring horn-sound — which was cool when Inception did it but is massively cliché now… Not to mention the “wailing woman” who always has to cover every “emotional” moment.
And there are many more questions about the plot, but by now I think I’ve made my point.