Elysium is defined as a state of perfect happiness; paradise. While writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s film is not that, it is still entertaining, visually stunning and, although set in the future, a reminder of our world’s failings today.
Los Angeles. 2154. Elysium begins following Max Da Costa, played solidly by Matt Damon, a man trying to live an honest life and not fall into the illegal patterns of his past. He lives in a city that is a far cry from what it is today. LA has crumbled, as has most of the Earth. Max works as a grunt in a factory run by the Armadyne Corporation. Armadyne has created Elysium itself, a space station orbiting Earth where only the extremely rich live a perfect life. While working at the factory, an accident occurs, exposing Max to a high level of radiation. He only has five days to live. This sends Max on a wild chase; he must find a way up to Elysium, which is his only chance being cured. Protecting Elysium is Secretary of Defense Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster, whose own scheme to gain ultimate power collides with Max’s personal mission.
Elysium is essentially an allegory. It pits a small portion of super rich against the millions of suffering poor. Sound familiar? While on Elysium, the rich have escaped Earth, looking down at a scorched planet from their beautiful paradise. To them, it is vital to turn their backs on the reality below and live an illusion. But the only reason they can is because they can afford to. In that way, the film forces us to look at ourselves. If we had the choice, would we really want to live in the dirt, the grime, the torturous existence on Earth in 2154? Probably not. Paralleling our own world, millions live in squalor the world over, fighting for the next meal. Today, there is a tiny percentage of super rich as well. They generally live in gated communities or at the top of skyscrapers away from the average citizen. Is it human nature to want this escape? And who’s to blame for this disconnect? If we look at Elysium, blame lies with those who create the opportunity to escape – those holding power. A corporation built Elysium and politicians run it. The citizens who could afford to move to Elysium have done so likely to keep their families safe. If the Earth was falling apart, would you not make the same choice?
But living on Elysium doesn’t only guarantee you a life without having to survive the nightmare created on Earth; you also have the ultimate in universal health care. If you have the money, you have access to the best medical technologies. If you don’t, you’re forced to slum it out on Earth, another echo of familiarity. The preservation of health is the most important commodity in 2154. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter where you live or what you have, you may be too sick to enjoy it. On Elysium, all diseases can be cured before they become terminal. Sounds perfect? It is. And the reason why so many on Earth, including Max, need to get there.
What makes Elysium worth watching? First, the stark visual contrasts. On Earth, while being in Los Angeles, it is the future that looks more like our present third world. I was reminded of cities in the Middle East or Southern Africa. It’s hot, dusty and overrun with people. There is no greenery; everything has Earth tones, but not the ones you want. It’s real and ugly. Yet, all you have to do is take an inter-galactic flight and in less than twenty minutes you are in outer space. There, we are quickly transported to a beautiful sight. The vastness and detail of Elysium itself is a sight to behold. Some of the space shots reminded me of the opening of Avatar, where the size and detail was mesmerizing.
Further, the acting in Elysium is good. Standing out is Sharlto Copley. Starring in Blomkamp’s District 9, Copley is reunited with the director playing Agent Kruger, a fowl and psychotic mercenary used by the Secretary of Defense to keep vessels from getting to Elysium from Earth. The fight scenes were enjoyably intense, with Damon being transformed into a superhuman fitted with an exoskeleton that gives him more strength. Surprisingly, the numerous gun battles kept a healthy balance between the use of slow motion and real time. In general, I don’t enjoy slow motion, especially in action films. But Blomkamp never abused its usage, which was refreshing. It never pulled me out of the film.
What kept Elysium from being great? It is predictable. The plot finds its way into a much overused pattern – the poor wanting to overthrow the rich. Time and time again, this story is done. It is classic and timeless. But what held Elysium back even further was the lack of connection I had to the characters and their need to bridge the rich/poor gap. Even as Max’s desire to get to Elysium became more personal, as the woman he loves was in crisis, it didn’t pull me into the story more, which was likely its intention. Yet, it is the connection with a film, especially one that is science fiction which is most essential. That connection moves a film from being good to great. And unfortunately, Elysium didn’t have it. It was an entertaining film, but not something that will resonate with me in weeks to come.