MOVIE REVIEW: "Elysium" (2013)

Kevin Long
Kevin Long's picture

“Elysium,” if you didn’t know, was the good section of the afterlife in Greek mythology. Forget Tartarus and the Fields of Punishment and the other cheap seats, this was the velvet rope part of the afterlife. Not heaven, exactly, but a really good section reserved for the close personal friends and relatives of the gods. And some heroes. Remember that last bit: it’s important.

“Elysium” is also a fairly transparent political allegory by Neill Blomkamp, the South African director who gave us “District 9” in 2009. That, too, was a fairly guile-free political allegory.

In the film, the titular “Elysium” is a massive donut-shaped space station, perhaps a hundred miles in diameter, in an orbit around the earth that seems remarkably unsafe to me, but what do I know? It’s filled with the beautiful people, the idle rich, the close personal friends and family of the gods, the 1%. Can you see where this is going?

Basically, if you are a citizen of Elysium, then you have access to medical equipment that can more-or-less instantly cure any disease, and can apparently slow the aging process considerably. It’s only for citizens, however. Needless to say, everyone on earth wants what the Elysians have. (In the movie they’re called “Elysium Citizens,” but that’s clunky, so screw it. We’re going with my name.)

Earth, of course, is a burned-out picked over wasteland, with bad air quality, constant fires, abject poverty, vast overpopulation, and a general surplus of suckitude. All of this is revealed in the more-or-less superfluous opening title cards.  The bulk of the film takes place in a vast, sprawling version of Los Angeles that looks like some of the shittier areas of Mexico City (Where, in fact, it was filmed).  The obvious allusion here is that the US in the 2150s is like Mexico is now, and how would we like it if the basics of a decent life were denied to us simply because we were born on the wrong side of a border. Like I said, this movie lacks all subtlety. There’s even an extended sequence of some illegal aliens from earth sneaking on to the station to use the medical facilities. They’re all rounded up quickly by “Homeland Security,” and taken back to earth.

Ordinarily I do a detailed synopsis, but I won’t spoil things by getting too involved. Suffice to say Max DaCosta (Matt Damon) is a poor kid from the wrong side of the planet who’s done some crime and some time and has the unfortunate tattoos to prove it. He bumps into a childhood sweetheart who’s made something of herself. Not massively much, mind you, but she’s done more with her life than he has. Both of them are kind of dead-enders, though.

There’s an accident, and Max ends up only having five days to live. Coincidentally, his ex-sweetie’s kid is similarly up crits’ sheek before too long. They have to get to Elysium for medical treatment, obviously, and this is where the whole ‘heaven is for heroes’ thing fits in. Our hero has to fight his way in by hook or by crook.

All of this is tied up in some really superficial and incoherent political shenanigans within the Elysium establishment itself. They need a macguffin that Max got a hold of, and they need him alive. This gives him more latitude than he really should have in a fair fight, and now that we’ve got the premise and the acting out of the way, we can concentrate on action sequences for the next hour or so. Which is a shame, as I was kinda’ digging the talky, emotional stuff. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s just that the story feels a little off-balance to me. All the thinking/statement stuff is in the first reel, and the rest is all smashy-smashy bang-bang. This is a structural problem, not a story problem.

Anyway, the second act is mostly running and chasing and shouting and explosions as Max is pursued by a crazy-assed South African sociopath who works for the Elysians. Then things go kind of off the rails, two major characters start making seemingly random decisions, and the final scenes reflect the joy of the blessings of plenty being showered down upon the wretched.

You know, for a day or two. Until the system collapses.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Despite my snarky tone, this is not a bad movie at all. In some places it’s a very clever film, it’s just I’m unaccustomed to message pictures that simply lay the message out there for you on the table and don’t make you work for it at all. That’s more of a Star Trek TV thing, you know? Not so much a movie thing.

This movie pulls the “Dune/Titanic” strategy of maximizing budget: Use Mexican slave labor. (Prop builders on Titanic got a whole dollar a day!) Just like those earlier production, this movie looks pretty fantastic. It’s got a budget of just over $100 million, but it looks easily twice that. Direction is good. Set design is good. Special effects – particularly of the space station itself – are just stunning. Really my only beef with the storytelling is that the fight sequences (Of which there were legion) rely way too heavily on extremely jittery camera work, jump cuts, swish-pans in closeup, and just general chaos and higgaldy piggaldy*. I know this is the new style, but I’m an old man, I’ve worn glasses since I was twelve, my visual acuity isn’t what it once was, and I found it hard to make sense out of what was going on in some of the more immersive sequences. It clocks in at about 105 minutes, and it feels about 15 too long. A lot of the action could be trimmed just a little bit and it wouldn’t hurt the story any. (There are some really memorable pieces, though, including a fight inside a rolling aircraft that takes place on the deck, the walls, the ceiling, and so on) I will say that the use of current-day cars that must be about 140 years old in the film did kind of take me out of it a bit. They could have done better there.  

Acting is, you know, good enough. Matt Damon plays Matt Damon in a Matt Damon film about the adventures of Matt Damon. Pretty much what you’d expect. I don’t really like him, but he’s kinda’ charming early on, and he tries to imbue his character with some humanity, but there’s not a lot of room for being human in about two thirds of the film. This is something you’ll probably never hear me say again: it’s not Damon’s fault. His once-and-future love is pretty, but stock character stuff. She makes no real impression.

I’ve sat here for ten minutes trying to make a joke about Jodie Foster, but I’m sorry, it just won’t come off. It’s late and I’m tired. It would have involved the phrases “America’s Middle-Aged Lesbian Sweetheart in her first official out-of-the-closet role” and “If Hillary Clinton was a Republican,” but I just can’t make it work. Sorry. I'm really tired, and just putting me in the wrong headspace to be funny. Everything I think up comes out as homophobic, which isn't what I was going for, so screw it, I give up on that. If it’s any consolation, it would have been a cheap gag. That notwithstanding, I’ve always liked Miss Foster’s depth and range and nuance, regardless of her proclivities. Unfortunately pretty much all of that is missing here. Jodie gives the blandest, least-interesting performance of her career, and she’s overshadowed by pretty much everyone else on the cast. I could not be more disappointed. I don’t think she cared much about the project, and most of her scenes appear to have been filmed in a block, largely independent of the rest of the cast. (She has exactly one scene with any members of Team Damon).

A few words about her accent: it’s all over the place. At first I thought she might have caught Kevin Costner’s disease, but I eventually realized this is deliberate. She was trying to create an accent unique to Elysium itself, which makes sense. Unfortunately she’s not up to the task, and her delivery is a not-quite-British affectation just a bit more yankified than Jonathan Harris used to use. More specifically, she sounds a bit like Roddy McDowell used to when he pretended to be American on occasion. She’s one of the people who makes a random out-of-character decision, and for the life of me I can’t figure why she did it. If Jodie was trying to telegraph something, she completely missed. No best actress nods for her this time out.  

The real breakout star of the film is Sharlto Kopley as the utterly psychotic “Agent Kruger.” He’s the principle antagonist of the film, and a man who takes entirely too much pride in his dark work. No, not ‘pride.’ More like ‘Glee.’ He, too, makes a random decision, but in his case we can at least guess at what caused it. He’s got an almost impenetrable accent, however. I kind of like it.

This is an interestingly multi-lingual film, with substantial chunks of dialog in Spanish and French.

Soundtrack is just sorta’ there. Nothing jumped out at me.

Set design is pretty awesome, honestly. They really were nailing home the ‘way too perfect’ nature of the space station. Even the industrial spaces have cherry trees in blossom, and planters lining the catwalks. Why? Mostly because they can, and it provides a nice contrast for the horrible nature of the factory we see on earth.

There are several brief scenes of extreme gore, but there’s not a lot of ‘em. That makes ‘em all the more shocking when they show up. It’s gratuitous, but well done.

Race relations in the film are interesting. I don’t have a problem with this. The director is South African, after all, a guy who would obviously have a lot more insights into that than Americans just by growing up in Apartheid until he was about ten or so, and a country that has vastly greater divides between rich and poor than we have in the US. I’ll give you an example: If this were an American movie, everyone on the station would be blonde-haired blue-eyed Aryan types. They’re not. They’re pretty ethnically diverse. Why? Well, South Africa has a substantial upper-class Indian population, so I assume the Director knows wealth is more-or-less irrespective of race. If you’ve got money, your race doesn’t matter. If you don’t have money, you’re little people, and who cares what color the little people are?

SCIENTIFIC OBSERVATIONS

What I find most interesting about this film is that it presents the appearance of being hard science, but actually isn’t.

Mr. Blomkamp, the writer as well as the director, has obviously read some Larry Niven in his day. Autodocs (Automatic doctors) are a major factor in the story, and the space station is open-toped just like the Ringworld. Of course the Ringworld had walls a thousand miles tall, and was spinning fast enough that the air didn’t come anywhere near leaking out over the top. That’s a physical impossibility on the space station we see here, but they needed an easy way in and out of the station. Also: the station appears to be rotating way too slowly to maintain the earth-normal gravity inside.

Night and Day on the station seem pretty random. Theoretically, as the thing orbits the earth every two or three hours, it should only be night when the station is traveling through the planet’s umbra. Instead they seem to be on a 24 hour cycle, but we see no mirrors or shades to account for it. It just is.

What do the Elysians do all day long? We see them going to parties and swimming a lot, but most of them don’t seem to have jobs. I would imagine keeping a huge space station running would be a pretty labor-intensive job. I get that this is trying to show their privileged nature, and the movie goes out of its way to Disneyfy the station in a “Progress City” sense, but it made me long for all those workers we always saw tinkering away with stuff in the background on Babylon 5. We also don’t see any shops or stores, or concert halls.

Exactly how do the autodocs fix things? We never see any instruments reconstructing stuff, or fixing diseases. They just wave a magic wand over people, and they’re better. It’s almost like they’ve got a molecular replicator in there. How are they powering the exoskeletons? Or the robots? For that matter, what powers the shuttles? They’ve got pretty easy access to space whenever they want it, and it’s about as hard as driving to the next town over. How is the space station powered? We never see solar panels or anything. Basically, without meaning to do so, the movie posits virtually limitless power. If that’s the case, then why the heck is everyone so poor? I get that earth is a bad place, but come on: Availability of energy is a major part of what keeps poor countries poor. Another thing that keeps poor countries poor is a scarcity of resources. Since energy appears to be free, and since medical care apparently doesn't use anything, it just magically heals you instantly, then there doesn't appear to be any real cost.

I'm not saying this to be pedantic. It's a serious problem with the allegory. The movie basically is in favor of illegal immigration, and free healthcare for all. In order to support this, the film has to stack the deck, setting up a hokey post-scarcity society in which everything could easily be free for everyone on earth, and it's only the greed of those jerky folks in the space station that keeps earth poor. In removing the cost in terms of materials - "Yes, your daughter is cured, but it used up 3,000 gallons of Medi-Goo, which it'll take us several weeks to replace, and she used 116 hours of Autodoc time" - it sort of oversimplifies the message to the point of silliness. The ending implies that everyone can have everything, but it never dares ask 'why doesn't everyone already have everything?' It never asks what's the limitation of the technology, nor how this system got set up in the first place (Which, honestly, would probably have something to do with the limitations of the tech. "Well, we can provide medical care for X number of people, so we'll limit our population to that. Any more - except in emergency situations - would over-tax our resources to the breaking point.") In the end, both the problem and the solution seem rather artificial. That's not a criticism of immigration reform or universal health care, it's just a criticism of the script.  

 BOTTOM LINE

Good enough film, far more ambitious than District 9, quite a bit more serious, but not quite as good. Sophomore slump, but high marks for trying. Now that he’s got this out of his system, I’m sure his next genre film will be a lot better. Worth watching, unless you’re a Republican, in which case you’ll view it as leftist propaganda. Which is, of course, entirely true, but that doesn’t detract from it being a good-enough film. Well worth a watch on the big screen, but probably not worth two.

Tags: