Let’s get this out of the way: Director Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 is amazing. Elysium is not as good as District 9. Now let’s focus on this film and try not to base its merit or flaws on a completely separate movie.
Blomkamp’s sophomore movie Elysium is a film that wears its political and social message on its action-filled sleeve. In fact, these elements are such a large part of the film, if you took them out or lessened them, it would be a vastly different story.
In short, it is the year 2154 and Earth is a trash-filled, poverty-stricken dystopia where every citizen is poor and forced to work in accordance with robots rather than human management. Where have the rich gone? To an orbiting space station known as Elysium, where poverty, disease, and the non-white (that’s not said out loud, but look at the residents’ skin color) are but a distant memory. It’s an easy allegory for the 99 vs. 1 percent that has informed much of the recent political debate.
Our narrative follows Matt Damon’s Max, an ex-con who is dosed with a lethal amount of radiation and dons a mechanical exoskeleton that is gruesomely attached to his body. This is in an effort to storm Elysium and be healed with one of their deus ex machine-like miracle machines. In the process he becomes intertwined with a political takeover and the lives of a young child and mother.
In essence, the world of Elysium is a projection of today’s issue 150 years into the future if the marginalized are left unaided. Disease is rampant, every city is overcrowded, the sick and injured far outnumber healthcare workers, and the rich simply do not care about the poor. The makeup of this world is easy to comprehend, as parts of it can be seen today. In fact, much of the movie’s earthbound scenes were filmed in parts of Mexico City.
After two films, Blomkamp has clearly illustrated his love for not only sci-fi with a message, but also the chance to create new and exciting technology on screen. Elysium is filled with tech that has roots in today’s experimental weapons. The mechanical exoskeletons on display offer a unique look at a practical version of power armor, while other weapons like exploding rounds and electric shields add an eye-popping factor to the fights, both figuratively and literally.
The issues at hand are powerful and the ideas put forward easily make the viewer think about the modern world. However, the story that propels Elysium is, while enjoyable, quite predictable.
While each actor puts forward a strong performance, each type of character can be seen in dozens of other movies. Damon’s Max is a rugged loner who only cares about himself, but slowly comes to take on the burden of the greater good. Jodie Foster’s Delacourt, head of Elysium’s security, is a cold-hearted bureaucrat who will let no one stand in the way of her agenda. Alice Braga is a kind-hearted single mother who desperately needs the help of our lead to save her daughter. These characters have not only been seen in other sci-fi films, but also in everything from political thriller to romantic comedy.
Additionally, there is very little moral grey area, as characters are either good or evil and the right and wrong choices are never in doubt.
Sharlto Copley, of District 9 fame, puts in a vastly different performance than his breakout role. His character, Kruger, is a psychotic and highly skilled mercenary who is, in essence, a dog let off a leash that slowly gains a mind of its own. He is frightening, magnetic, and positively scenery-chewing as he fully embraces his psychotic behavior. But again, this sort of character can be seen in an endless stream of films.
Not only that, the concepts in the film can be seen in many other pieces of sci-fi. The space station Elysium bares a strong resemblance to the world of Halo, exoskeletons can find their basis in the original novel Starship Troopers, and unexplained healing machines are spread across movies, TV, and video games.
As far as its narrative goes, Elysium has a clear goal: send a sci-fi based warning about today’s world and create an action adventure that thrills and entertains. Unlike District 9 (whoops, I said I wouldn’t compare them), Elysium doesn’t strike a great balance between action and message. When one is the focus on screen, the other disappears. This is especially the case with the final act of the film, where all political pretenses are dropped in favor of non-stop action.
While the first half of Elysium is dedicated to world development and character growth, the second half is an escalating series of battles and blown-apart bodies. And once our characters are set on a collision course with one another, the outcome and steps to get to the finale are set in stone and marked with bright flashing neon signs. If you saw a trailer for Elysium and thought to yourself, “I think I know exactly what happens at the end of this movie,” then you’re probably right. No, not every film has to have a jaw-dropping twist, but successful narrative structure dictates that the audience does not know what’s around the corner until they reach it.
It’s difficult to feel fully impacted by the movie when not only is the message so readily apparent, but its outcome is rarely in doubt. As the credits roll, Elysium has cemented itself as a piece of science fiction that stands up to its peers but is left in the shadows of the genre’s defining works.