Release Date: August 9th, 2013
Director: Neill Blomkamp
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
As I watched Neill Blomkamp’s latest feature, I wondered if I would be able to write about it without referencing the director’s stunning achievement that was District 9 (2009). The jury is in, and I cannot help but compare Elysium to District 9; the comparison even affected the final score which I gave to the film that opened today. District 9 was a true 10/10 – a starkly original and nearly perfectly executed science fiction metaphor for apartheid. Now comes Elysium which tackles a multitude of contemporary issues: immigration, terrorism and government’s reaction to it, the rise of technology and its use and misuse by humans, and the disparity between the rich and the poor, particularly as it applies to healthcare access. The film is set in 2154, which – compared to some futuristic films – is actually not that far off.
As the film opens, we are introduced to two young friends, Max and Frey. Max is a unique little boy being raised by nuns in what must be an orphanage located in a largely Latino section of Los Angeles (of course, by the time this film is taking place, it’s likely that the vast majority of the city is Latino). Everyone on Earth is poor – poor in health and in wealth. But Elysium – a space station visible in the sky – is populated with humankind’s wealthy and world leaders. There is no disease or death on Elysium where everyone lives in disgusting opulence. Although there is a president and council, the real power rests with the defense secretary, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). When three shuttles leave Earth and attempt to illegally land on Elysium, Delacourt has a sleeper agent on earth activated; he will take out two of the shuttles, killing all on board. The third shuttle lands, but its passengers and crew are quickly apprehended and deported. In a chilling scene, she defends her actions before the President and we get shades of both post-9/11 American administrations and their attitudes about the “war on terror.”
The film quickly fast forwards to show us Max (Matt Damon) grown up and in his 30s. He had a life of crime, but now works in a factory making the droids that run security on Earth. He is involved in a workplace accident, getting a lethal dose of radiation. He has five days to live. So, what to do? Max decides to get to Elysium to heal himself in one of the med pods there. He goes to Spider (Wagner Moura), who is essentially a coyote for illegal immigrants; he gives people Elysium citizenship and mans the illegal launches to the space utopia. Spider agrees to help Max, but at a price. Max must kidnap one of the wealthy elite and download the info stored in the mark’s brain. Max says “yes,” and chooses the “victim” – John Carlyle (William Fichtner) who owns and operates the factory where Max worked and treated Max as disposable after the accident. Oh, and Spider ensures Max will be in good form to fight by transforming him into a human-droid hybrid.
Max and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) are joined by a couple of Spider’s best men. One of the most exciting sequences includes bringing down Carlyle’s shuttle, battling his bodyguard drones, and syphoning his brain’s contents and transferring them to Max’s brain. What they don’t know is that Delacourt has gotten Carlyle to upload an Elysium reboot code to his brain. Once on Elysium, he would hook himself up to the station’s mainframe and log into the system at which point Delacourt could take control of Elysium and make herself president. Now, Max has that ability. Knowing that, Delacourt reactivates that sleeper agent from before, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), and sends him and his two compatriots after Max.
Kruger tracks Max to Frey’s (Alice Braga) home. She has patched up Max after his fight for Carlyle’s brain. Frey is desperate to get to Elysium to save her sick daughter’s life, but Max refuses to take them along. It all works out though, because Kruger kidnaps Frey and little Matilda (Emma Tremblay). Max goes to Kruger to hitch a ride to Elysium after Delacourt shuts down all flights from Earth; Max knows she will let Kruger and Max leave the planet because she needs what is in Max’s head.
And so, the real action is reserved for Elysium. As Max and Spider (who has followed in his own shuttle) fight to get to Elysium’s mainframe, Kruger and his men do everything to keep them from it. Frey and Matilda are at a med pod, waiting for Max to hook himself up to the mainframe and grant them citizenship since only Elysium citizens can be healed by the pods. I have given numerous details above (and still left a lot out, I feel), but I will avoid saying what ultimately happens to Max, Spider, Frey, Matilda, Kruger, and Delacourt.
There is much to appreciate here, so why only a 7/10? The film is often too action-packed. Presented in 2D IMAX (which is how I saw it) and non-IMAX formats, I am glad it was not shown in 3D because I think I would have gotten nauseated in a few places. There is often too much to see at any given moment. Another issue was the various accents of key characters, particularly Spider and Kruger; I found myself straining to understand what they said half of the time (Foster’s less-than-authentic South African accent is very distracting). But the film’s major flaw is the lack of character development and depth; it’s an unnecessary flaw for a film that is so dense otherwise and only runs 97 minutes. I found that I did not really care about any of these characters; I simply was not emotionally invested. That is partly Blomkamp’s fault as writer-director and partly the actors’ fault. And because of District 9, we know Blomkamp can deliver both a great sci-fi action-adventure feast for the senses and a deeply moving character study (or studies). It is this lack of character development that I think is disappointing audience members and critics alike.