Elysium (2013) Review

SPOILER WARNING: I‘m going to go into some details which give away plot elements in the film, so consider yourself warned.

“Elysium” is a political statement. Unfortunately, it’s a heavy-handed, ham-fisted political statement backed up by too little story, paper-thin clichéd characterisation and breathtakingly inept world-building.

The particular cause in Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the excellent “District 9” is access to healthcare, with a generous side order of elitism and “the 1%”. The year is 2154 and we are asked to believe that the rich have left Earth to live on the orbiting space station Elysium while the rest of the population live on the overpopulated, polluted planet below.

We are first introduced to our hero, a ne’er-do-well orphan called Max through flashbacks which are then revisited unnecessarily and intrusively throughout the film. In the present, Max (played stoically by Matt Damon) has served several years in prison and is now trying to go straight. He dutifully struggles with the cruel indifference of the world in which he lives, where the harsh social regime is policed and enforced by the very robots Max helps to assemble. When an industrial accident caused by the callous negligence of his employers exposes him to a massive dose of radiation, he is dismissively given five days to live and fired from his job.

This metaphorically ticking clock pushes Max to return to his old ways and old employer in return for the chance to get to Elysium. Along the way, he runs into and involves his childhood sweetheart and her daughter in his desperate quest for a miracle cure.

You see, on Elysium, everybody has magical medical machines in their homes which can cure any injury or disease at the molecular level. From broken bones, to cancer to missing body parts, nothing is beyond the capability of these machines (except, apparently, brain damage).

Guarding the space station is the no-nonsense hard-line Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has a zero tolerance approach to illegal immigrants and, well, pretty much anything else really. Her overzealous reaction to a potential breach of Elysium’s borders, including the use of her Earth-based psychotic attack dog Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) brings her into conflict with the blandly neutral President, and we learn that she has a zero tolerance approach to democracy too.

Colluding with a billionaire industrialist, Delacourt plots an elaborate conspiracy to seize control of Elysium. This sets her on a collision course with Matt Damon’s Max who has been upgraded with an exoskeleton which looks like the kind of coat hanger Tony Stark might hang his armour on at the end of the day. The suit helps him to remain mobile despite the crippling effects of radiation poisoning  and, as a fringe benefit, enables him to download the thoughts and memories of the very industrialist involved in the conspiracy in the hope of gaining access to Elysium. Of course, the heist is bungled and the vital information, including the details of the conspiracy and the means to control Elysium end up trapped in Max’s head which suddenly everybody wants to crack open to get the goodies inside.

It’s all pretty thin stuff and we never really get a good look at what life is like on Elysium or why, apart from the miracle healthcare, people would want to live in space. The society presented to us is so unbalanced that it beggars belief that it could be sustained. The economic and social disparity on the scale “Elysium” presents would suggest that resources are scarce. However, if you have technology which can manipulate matter on the molecular level, then suddenly virtually all resources become limitless.

There would be no need to have a space station so the super-rich could live in pastoral luxury while the rest of us scrabble around in the dirt and rubbish of generations of waste. Got a surplus of rubble, garbage and pollution? Fire up the old matter converter and create food, clean water and fresh air. It just makes no sense. Orbital travel is also commonly available (even to the have-nots, judging by the number of attempts they make to get to Elysium) so again you’d expect mankind to have reached out to solve its resources problem. Don’t even get me started on the inconsistency of the technology (self-sustaining atmospheres in space, energy weapons and projectile weapons etc. ) “Elysium” has the most incongruous and irrational world building I’ve seen since Pixar’s “Cars”.

And therein lies the ugly truth behind “Elysium”’s political posturing. This is a deliberately and calculatingly pessimistic and nihilistic view of humanity in the future. A future which assumes the super-rich are one homogenous, self-centred mass with no room for altruism, humanitarianism or philanthropy. In a world where resources can be almost infinite thanks to technology, it would only take one or two super-wealthy philanthropists to transform the whole world. There’s a cynical bitterness to “Elysium” that refuses to acknowledge that possibility.

The performances are decent enough, though in a film rich with a variety of exotic accents, Jodie Foster chooses an almost inexplicably bizarre Anglo-Ameri-Euro-Neutral which really seems to cause her problems in getting the dialogue out and makes her seem disengaged. [MAJOR SPOILER] When her character is betrayed and refuses treatment while dying, I found it hard to shake the feeling she was just glad to get out of this misjudged film.

Mention must also be made of Sharlto Copley’s turn as Kruger. There are times when he is one of the most terrifying, chillingly psychotic villains ever to grace the screen. Unfortunately, his tendency to go high pitched and squeaky when in full, thickly-accented flow robs him of much of his menace when a more restrained vocal performance could have made the character almost unbearably monstrous.

The visuals are adequate to good but nothing we really haven’t seen before and the style is straight out of the “District 9” playbook. Lots of shaky handicam shots and an overuse of the deafening/ disorientating after-effects of flashbangs and grenades.

It seems the “difficult second movie” was too difficult for Neill Blomkamp to pull off.