The summer of 2013 has been really hit-or-miss for big movies. Star Trek: Into Darkness was pretty great. Furious 6 was crazy fun if you left your brain tied to a parking meter outside the theater. The Wolverine was also a good time, but that might solely attributable to the fact it came on the heels of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is one of history’s worst movies. The critical response to all three of the aforementioned movies was mixed. The rest has been flotsam. Man of Steel failed to live up the expectations I arbitrarily set up for it, and Pacific Rim was meh. Iron Man 3 shall not be mentioned on this website. Opening late in the summer season, the Matt Damon vehicle, Elysium, unfortunately, also comes in at the jetsam end of the spectrum.
Neil Blomkamp caught people’s attention with 2009’s District 9. I wasn’t a fan, but I have a steep aversion to body horror. Lots of other people liked it, and Blomkamp was sort of nominated by the cultural aether to become the next great sci-fi auteur. He was even attached to a stillborn Halo project, the debris of which seem to have coalesced into Elysium, a film with plenty of colors and explosions, but little else. The barebones of the plot is that Max, played by Matt Damon, who is a poor factory worker with a ruff-n-tumble past, gets terminal nuclear cancer. He is given an oddly specific 5 day life expectancy. In order to survive, he decides to give himself robot arms and fly to the eponymous Elysium, a giant space ring where rich people live in luxury, hoarding machines that can cure any illness, except apparently cupidity. Wait, I guess that’s not a disease, unlike 5-day nuclear cancer. Damon’s love interest has a daughter who also has cancer. I bet you can figure out the rest.
The first act is a mess. To begin with, text exposition explains that in the future, rich people live on a floating ring in space, and poor people live on Earth. Right after that, we are presented with a montage of Matt Damon’s youth in LA, explaining poor people live on Earth, and rich people live on a floating ring in space. I don’t know if that’s redundant, or lazy, though I suppose the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Scene transitions are jarring. We shift from Earth to Elysium, the aforementioned giant space ring, without rhyme or reason. It feels as though Bomkamp was twenty minutes into editing Max’s storyline, and then realized “Oh, s$$t! I’d better introduce the audience to the evil rich people!” And so, the next scene introduces us to Elysium’s secretary of defense, the rich and evil Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster and her unplaceable accent. She works for an Indian president apparently elected by computer A.I. Honestly, I think Blomkamp took the first forty minutes of the movie and just threw the scenes up into the air, and spliced them together in the order in which they fell.
And then we get into the second act, which is just lots of explosions and fire. Working for Delcaourt is Special Agent Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley, who also has robot arms so that he can have cool fights with Matt Damon. Right before their final confrontation at the end, Kruger even gets bigger robot arms, because, you know, that’s how video games work. Bosses get harder. Kruger is bat-s$$t insane, and a very evil man. Why? Because the plot requires him to be, just as the plot requires Delacourt and all the other rich people to be evil.
Which brings us to the film’s biggest weakness. There are no characters. The wealthy on Elysium are greedy and evil by the mere virtue of having money. The film, thematically, sort of reminds me of the Justin Timberlake movie In Time, where the villains really do nothing too dastardly except have money. The why would involve plot spoilers, but trust me when I say they are depriving the poor of Earth for no reason at all. Blomkamp just tells the audience “They’re rich and evil; they’re poor and good.” That’s it. We get no insight whatsoever into Delacourt’s background or motives, which is rendered maddening in the conclusion of the film when she makes a decision completely and diametrically opposed to everything we’ve learned about her personality. Again, no spoilers here. Kruger similarly, is just crazy and evil. That’s his state of being. His actions late in the film are unfathomable, and made more unbelievable by the fact he’s kind of successful. Did I mention his accent? He has this weird accent I think must be South African because the actor is from there. It’s like weirdly Dutch, but also almost Australian. I don’t know, it’s the future. None of this matters because he’s just here to have upgrade-able robot arms and duel Mat Damon.
Visually, the film is a meh. The design of Elysium’s interior elicits images of a sort of space Switzerland, except for the cherry trees inexplicably coating landing platforms. But hey, the cherry blossoms flying all over the place during the final battle had to come from somewhere, right? Oh my God! Did I mention Kruger has a samurai sword? Really, he does. Nothing screams elite space armor commando like medieval weaponry. The giant ring itself, of course, is straight out of Halo. Earth looks like the slums from District 9. At least Blomkamp is honest to his own style…the camerawork is quintessential 2000’s action. Lots of shaky cam, lots of quick zooms. Little attention seems to have been paid to scene composition or framing. Nothing about the film’s score stands out past bland.
Damon isn’t bad in his role; Max is certainly less self-assured and more panicked than a, let’s say, Jason Bourne. Though, inexplicably, he’s a better fighter than a government-trained super agent and his samurai sword. The character just isn’t written well. The same can be said for Jodie Foster as Delacourt. I don’t know what to say about Sharlto Copley, as Kruger is just a mess.
Elysium features lots of bright colors and movement; it mimics good action films on a surface level. But it features a paper-thin plot only superseded by the flatness of the characters. I did not like it, and do not recommend it.