“Elysium”: Heavy are the Burdens of the Exosuit Gladiator

Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Elysium

Answering the most important question first: no, Elysium is nowhere near as revelatory as writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s previous film, the Oscar-nominated District 9. Constructed with four times the budget and ten times the star power, Blomkamp’s latest Important-Message sci-fi actioner is just as visually accomplished, but delivers a fraction of the impact.

Just as District 9‘s Wikus van der Merwe was introduced to us as a smarmy racist bureaucrat, so is our new protagonist an imperfect specimen you wouldn’t invite to dinner. Matt Damon is Max, a smart-mouthed ex-con who’s lucky to have a grimy factory job in a post-apocalyptic Earth that resulted from rampant human wastefulness or whatever. Times are tough for Max — his best childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga, whom I last saw in Predators) is a nurse who’ll treat him as a patient but has too many concerns to bother with him for long. His trusty sidekick Julio (Diego Luna) isn’t good for much except camaraderie and car theft. His parole officer, a testy robot who resembles a Twilight Zone evil ventriloquist dummy, is more than happy to extend his parole sentence for the pettiest of misunderstandings. His life hits rock bottom when a workplace accident bathes him in radiation and leaves him with five days to live. Worst of all, this is clearly a future in which the concept of workmans’ comp no longer exists, so his employers aren’t legally bound to pay for his treatment.

In this reality his instant terminal illness is curable: the answer lies thousands of miles in space on a wheel-shaped satellite called Elysium, where all of Earth’s upper-class citizens fled with their money and technology — creating for themselves the most wondrously groomed, most inaccessible gated community ever. Special features include free health care for the worthy, no signs of poverty, no chance of unsightly immigrants, and a complete end to racism — Elysium citizens of all skin tones agree their lives are so much better without those pesky, dirty Earthlings of any color lowering their property values.

If Max is to live, his only chance is to infiltrate Elysium and score a few seconds in one of their healing machines that uses movie science magic to cure any and every condition from cancer to broken bones to exploded face. Barring his way are the scheming defense secretary (Jodie Foster, chewing scenery with a snarling French accent), her heavily armed goon whose driving force varies from act to act (District 9‘s Sharlto Copley, now the hammy villain), a stuck-up executive with vital intel (the reliably loathsome William Fichtner), and his own imminent demise. In his favor are a black-market illegal-immigration team led by the resourceful Spider (Wagner Moura, hyper enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing him in more films) and an agonizingly implanted exoskeleton that endows him with the proportionate strength and stamina of Jason Bourne.

Once Blomkamp and his proxies set up all the current issues they’d like to tackle via allegory, the second half of the movie responds with an extended chase scene from Earth to Elysium that pauses only for punches and explosions. Max struggles to cope with what it means to Do the Right Thing, but never quite sells me on the anti-suburban folk hero he’s meant to be. Copley’s Kruger too zealously relishes his moments of immortal repartee such as “You’ll have to get past me!” and “I’m just getting started!” (By “immortal” I mean “refuses to go away and die”.) And their entire game of cat-and-mouse, thrilling and surprising though it can be in isolated moments, is shot in wobbly, caffeine-withdrawal shaky-cam guaranteed to reduce any viewer with a delicate constitution to a nauseated mess.

On the basic levels of visuals and science-fiction reimagining, Elysium should sit ably on the shelf next to District 9, but suffers at all other points of comparison. Though I dreaded the possibility that it would become another heavy-handed-moralizing Matt Damon vehicle (see also Green Zone, Promised Land), I was oddly disappointed when that direction was swept aside halfway through in favor of nifty summer action spectacle, capped with an ending that literally solved everything with a cop-out reset button. I’ll be curious to see if Blomkamp’s next project can negotiate the middle ground between the two sides with a little more finesse.

To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Elysium end credits, but I was pleased to note that some (many?) of the effects were crafted courtesy of Richard Taylor and the usual amazing suspects at WETA Workshop. That explains a lot, then.

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