All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Elysium, a science fantasy/action picture by Neill Blomkamp, is nothing more and nothing less than you would expect it to be.
The premise, that a group of people were selected to leave Earth and live an idyllic if Stepford-like existence on a space station, Elysium, that lies 19 minutes by rocket from Earth, is more interesting that the basic plot that, on this occasion, has Matt Damon, as Max DaCosta, trying to defeat nefarious powers that are devoted to keeping Elysium exclusive and unpolluted by the average earthling, especially Max who is an ex-convict and a dedicated, if cute, rebel since he was a toddler. Max’s adversary is Elysium’s head of security, Delacourt, played with sneering hauteur by Jodie Foster, no doubt well-paid, but wasted in this cookie-cutter part.
We see precious too little of life on Elysium. We know its populace can cure all ailments, including cancer, heart disease, and broken bones, by lying in a healing contraption for about 30 seconds. We see them looking like Bachelor contestants holding cocktail glasses and looking oh-so-groomed in garb and coif on perfectly manicured lawns. But we don’t see much interaction among residents to see if they’re happy or merely thrilled not to have to live on Earth.
For Earth, Blomkamp has gone the standard route and made it the usual post-Apocalyptic nightmare, everyone looking sweaty and haggard, as if no remembers the formula for soap, and in tatters s if no one can figure out how to sew or beat a garment on a rock to get it clean.
Of course, Earth’s desolation and universal despondency, its being a prison of sorts, is compared to the society of leisure and plenty. In an early scene, Max, gazing at Elysium, as it hovers just above Earth, swears he will share in its paradise one day and take his childhood pal, Frey, played by Alice Braga, with him.
You see the set-up. Elysium is one more us vs. them saga with the benefit of showing a different world at which its audience can marvel, rather than just having Camden rise up against Manhattan.
Blomkamp, who wrote and directed 2009’s cleverer, more complex, and far more interesting District 9, is a master at creating robots and technical paraphernalia of the type with which Max is outfitted for his journey to Elysium. He is also good at depicting squalor and the human desire to escape virtual bondage and enjoy the best life may offer. It is strange, then, that he was able to make the aliens in District 9 more affecting than he makes the humans in Elysium.
Elysium is a movie that is plotted by the numbers. It’s cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and crimelord vs. Eliot Ness in a science fantasy setting. Everything goes by breezily enough, but you can’t help thinking, “Same idea, same plot since Antigone took on Creon, same ups and downs, different setting.” While Blomkamp makes that setting interesting, he doesn’t make it fascinating. One look, and you know the whole story, just as you know what will happen, and how, when Jimmy Stewart rides into a town and finds the citizens cowed by a mean and greedy landowner.
The problem is Blomkamp never makes his story affecting. It is so by the numbers, so according to Sophocles, that you never care emotionally about the characters.
Of course, you root for Max. He is you being made an urchin by people too shallow and haughty to share. He also has a mission to accomplish. You respect Frey who has become a nurse and tries to administer to patients in a squalid makeshift hospital, all the while knowing healing is a casual event on Elysium. You get somewhat involved in Frey’s concern for her daughter, who is the last stages of leukemia and no longer responsive to the treatment she can receive on Earth.
You care a little, but the concern in a thump on a heartstring or a desire to have the hero, Max, triumph, like Jimmy Stewart does. (Never mind about Antigone, whose fate always remains a possibility.) Sentiments arise, but they never soar into tears or great worry about the heroes trying to gain dignity and cleanliness against a cold-eyed menace like Delacourt or her minions on Elysium and on Earth.
So Elysium sails by with enough diversion that you can’t hate it or mourn the time you spent watching it. I just wish it had a little less machine, a little less clockwork plotting, and more human heart.
Matt Damon, as usual, exudes leadership and determination as Max. He is cool adult who has been cool since childhood. He combines the street smarts and the common touch it takes to survive in Earth’s dystopian society of the mid-22nd century. Damon pulls off everything he has to do with natural aplomb. He does not, however, go the extra mile to make Max an iconic hero or one we watch only because we are following what happens in a movie.
No performance in Elysium is particularly distinguished. Shalito Copley sinks his teeth into his role as Elysian undercover operative on Earth. Copley’s enjoyment of his character’s cunning villainy would translate to audience enjoyment if that character, Kruger, wasn’t so much Max’s enemy. Wagner Maura, as a crime kingpin, Spider, who is also a technological whiz and leader of a resistance operation that fights and seeks equality from Elysium, comes across as the most complex and human as the characters. Maura is the Philip Seymour Hoffman of this movie, an actor who finds ways to make Spider authentic and interesting beyond the dialogue on the page or a direction to shoot the robot.