Elysium (United States, 2013)

August 08, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Elysium Poster

Elysium is a thoroughly entertaining science fiction/action spectacle that reinforces the argument that director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) has what it takes to enthrall audiences. However, I can't help but wishing this material had been given "the HBO miniseries treatment." One of the first rules of film criticism is to review what's on the screen but, damn, I wish Elysium had been provided with the time and space to breathe. Blomkamp's universe is a fascinating place to visit and the movie is stuffed with ideas - there's far too much here to satisfactorily explore in 109 minutes, especially when one considers that room must be made for action scenes. I departed the theater satisfied with what I'd seen but wanting more.

Elysium is set in the mid-22nd century. An overpopulated, polluted Earth has been abandoned by its wealthiest citizens for Elysium, a Stanford torus space station paradise. Those who remain on the planet are the dregs of society - manual laborers, criminals, and those struggling to make a living while gazing up longingly at the great wheel in the sky where advanced medical care is available for all, the lawns are immaculately groomed, and there's no crime or want. The film's opening moments dramatize this with a series of captivating visuals contrasting the cramped, grimy environs of Los Angeles' endless cityscape with the pacific beauty of Elysium. And, although nothing that follows quite matches the majesty of the introduction, it's a terrific way to set up a movie.

After establishing the setting, Blomkamp introduces us to his protagonist, Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), an ex-car thief who has gone straight. On parole, he has left behind his old life and gotten a regular job. The temptation to go back is always there, however, represented by his buddy, Julio (Diego Luna). A reminder of more pleasant times is Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood crush who returns to his life as an adult woman with a terminally ill daughter. After a workplace accident, Max finds himself in the same category as Frey's child, although his prognosis is worse. He has five days to live unless he discovers a way to get to Elysium and gain access to its advanced medical facilities. Under normal circumstances, this would merely be "difficult," but Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is organizing a coup with the help of billionaire John Carlyle (William Fichtner), thereby potentially destabilizing the political system and putting Elysium in a state of high alert. Plus, Max doesn't have the money necessary to buy passage on an illegal shuttle so he is forced to agree to go on a dangerous mission: kidnap Carlyle. The task is made more challenging by the arrival of Delacourt's unbalanced "operative," Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Elysium contains plenty of generic action scenes for those who get excited about such things. In some ways, Max's tale plays out a little like a superhero origin story with Kruger filling the part of the "supervillain." There are a couple of noteworthy fight scenes - one on Earth and one on Elysium - that are adeptly directed although not groundbreaking. Elysium does take some chances and at least one plot development is surprising. While the production's testosterone quotient is filled in the Matt Damon scenes, I was ultimately more interested in those featuring Jodie Foster as the scheming would-be president. Sadly, the political subtext remains mostly in the background, being employed only to the extent necessary to advance the plot. As a result, Delacourt is less well-developed than she might have been.

The same can't be said of Kruger who, as played by District 9's Sharlto Copley, is an amazingly nasty piece of work. The performance reminded me of Gerald Butler's bravura contribution to 300 except, in this case, we're dealing with a demented example of cybernetic engineering. Copley dominates every scene in which he appears, including those with Matt Damon. Damon, having gained credibility for action films with his three Jason Bourne outings, is believable as Max but the character is a little bland. We become invested in his struggle mainly because Copley, who opposes him, is so deliciously evil.

Is the movie thinly-veiled "liberal propaganda," as has been claimed by some pundits? Not really. Yes, the Earth of the future is portrayed as an overpopulated hellhole with a barely breathable atmosphere and there's an obvious class schism but these aren't new ideas to science fiction, which often brims with allegory. And Blomkamp is likely drawing on the recent history of his native South Africa for inspiration. If there's something to complain about, it's not Elysium's politics but the facile manner in which the resolution occurs. Suspending disbelief is fine but the film's ending challenges the viewer's ability to accept a few rather improbable events.

Elysium enters the movie marketplace as twilight is falling on the 2013 blockbuster season. It's sufficiently different from everything released in the past few months to make it worth a look even for those suffering from "blockbuster fatigue," but it isn't the kind of original, can't-miss surprise Blomkamp gave us with District 9. The R-rating, garnered primarily because of violence and gore, makes this a more adult experience than the summer's sanitized PG-13 cavalcade, which is in and of itself refreshing. It's well paced and looks great: two qualities that can't be overemphasized when dealing with something that aspires to pack multiplex auditoriums.

Elysium (United States, 2013)

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch
Music: Ray Amon
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2013-08-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1