Elysium (2013): Written and directed by Niell Blomkamp. Starring: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, and William Fichtner. Rated R for: Graphic sci-fi violence, and a blown-off face. Running Time: 109 minutes.
Anytime that a movie creates its own world, and tries to use that world to play with big, out-there ideas, it has to strike delicate balance- exactly how much of this big new world should be explained, and how much should be left to the imagination? The movies that do this better *usually* follow the “less is more” rule of storytelling- the only aspects of the larger world that are explained within the movie are those immediately necessary for the story it’s trying to tell. The Star Wars movies are a good example of this. The first trilogy drops hints about a huge, multi-species universe, bound together by a mysterious power called the “Force,” and two orders called the “Sith” and the “Jedi.” Those details, however, are secondary to the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, which take up the bulk of the original trilogy’s attention. Contrast that with the much-derided prequels, which sought to delve further into Star Wars lore and give us not only the gritty details of the rise of the Empire and the downfall of the Jedi, but also of the nature of the Force itself. In doing so, Lucas (in the minds of many) went way too far in his efforts to over-explain everything about his world, and in doing so took from the prequels the sense of fun, mystery, and wonderment that made (and still make) the originals so special.
Elysium, the latest dystopian sci-fi/political allegory by rising South African talent Niell Blomkamp, is the kind of movie that seeks to pull off such a balancing act in order to work as both a sci-fi thriller and as an over-the-top political metaphor. The setting is Earth, in the year 2154. The world’s rich left Earth generations ago for an off-world colony called Elysium, leaving the “99%” behind on an over-polluted and over-crowded Earth. Access to Elysium is enabled by ID stamps literally burned onto people at birth, giving them access to both Elysium itself and its miraculous technology- med pods that can instantly cure any illness or physical deformity/injury, as long as the person has an Elysium ID and is still alive. There are plenty who pay good money for an “illegal” ship to Elysium, but nearly all are either destroyed or apprehended by Jodie Foster’s irredeemable Secretary of Defense Delacourt, a poster-image combo of every over-the-top, anti-immigration ranter you could possibly pick out of our current news networks. In an ever-so-subtle display of the cultural divide at work, the residents of Elysium are mostly white and speak a mixture of English and French, while the residents of Earth (or at least Los Angeles, the only planetside locale we actual visit) are noticeably more Hispanic, and mix English and Spanish.
The focus of the story is a former criminal named Max, played by a bald Matt Damon. Out of prison and seeking to get by as a blue-collar worker, Max is rather quick to jump back into the criminal underworld when exposure to intense radiation at work leaves him with five days to live. His former employer, and enjoyably over-the-top crime lord called Spider, surgically attaches a metal exoskeleton to Damon’s upper body, giving him both enhanced strength and the ability to literally hack into someone’s brain and “download” whatever information is there, which Spider wants to use to get access to Elysium’s banks.
If you can’t guess that the plan goes terribly wrong, you need to watch more movies. Damon finds himself caught up in a rather uninteresting conspiracy set up by Jodie Foster, who wishes to seize control of Elysium (of COURSE!). Furious that the information she needed was stolen by Damon, she sicks the loosest of loose cannons on him, a mercenary named Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), whose committed exuberance for all that is depraved makes him the most interesting performance of the entire film. Not only are Damon’s underworld contacts at risk, but his childhood friend (Alice Braga) and her dying daughter (Generic Freeze-dried Childhood Innocence) get caught up in the mix as well when they are captured by Sharlto. Can Damon save his secret love, defeat Sharlto and the mecha-robots defending Elysium, and save humanity from the oppression of the wealthy few? Can you spell Blomkamp without writing “camp?” Do you really need to ask?
Joking aside, I didn’t at all mind the blatant political allegory that is the entirety of Elysium’s script. In fact, it’s the main reason I went to see the film in the first place. That, and to see some good, sci-fi smackdowns by men wearing overcompensatory mech suits. Does the film deliver on both counts?
Well…….see, this is why I started this review musing over the “less is more” principle of storytelling that I am usually so fond of. Elysium is flawed in numerous ways, but the only issue that really brought it down for me (aside from the now ubiquitous shaky-cam/rapid-fire editing during the action scenes) is how little it all pays off in the end. There are a slew of interesting designs here- the few shots we get of Elysium from space reminded me of 2001’s famous space flight sequence, Damon’s mech-suit makes him look suitably imposing, and the ships and robots are well-done, if a touch generic- but we never get to see enough of them, either because the camera zooms in for uncomfortable close-ups or because the damn thing won’t stop shaking. There are some GREAT weapons that the characters pull out, use once, and then discard for the remainder of the film. There are unending possibilities for a suit like Damon’s, but all he does with it is tear up one robot, lift a few heavy objects, and beat up a few civilians. And for all its pretense as a “F*** YEAH” call for economic redistribution, Elysium never fully embraces just how hammy it could (and, in my opinion, should) be. Blomkamp probably just didn’t want to bog down the story with too much detail, ala Phantom Menace, but at the same time, he never fully fleshes out the bits and pieces he does throw at us, and the result is something slightly underwhelming.
This is not to say it’s a bad movie, far from it. While I take issue with all the hype over how “original” Blomkamp’s work supposedly is, he’s clearly got plenty of interesting ideas bouncing around his head, even if he hasn’t quite found solid footing as a filmmaker. And, like Pacific Rim, Elysium is at least trying to be something new and less thematically confused than the avalanche of corporate rebrands this summer has dumped into our screaming mouths. Plus, I really dug how the film's "hero" is motivated by purely selfish reasons- "I don't wanna die" is his unending mantra from the moment he's told he's going to do just that. And yet, even that ends up being a disadvantage in the end- the movie tries to parley that into a mini-character arc that gives his actions at the very end more emotional weight (I won't spoil how, except to say that it involves zoo animals). However, like so much else in the movie, it's too rushed, too thin, and happens too fast to leave much of an impact. This is a movie that I think is absolutely worth seeing, but I can’t blame anyone for waiting for the DVD release. And with that, at long last, the summer blockbuster days come to a much-needed close.