ELYSIUM: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, directed by Neill Blomkamp (109 min.)
There was no subtle message in District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 science fiction thriller that managed to grab a Best Picture nomination. Apartheid was front and center in the picture, made into an allegory with aliens, but the characters were loose and limber and the emotional pull of the story was undeniable. Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi allegory, Elysium, is just as heavy handed as District 9, functioning as an obvious comparison/indictment of immigration and health care, only it doesn’t have the advantage of being well thought out, emotional, or particularly engaging. Everything important this time around is rushed and wafer thin characters serve only to be thrust into action scenes. And while I do admit the action scenes are exciting and intensely violent at times, they aren’t enough to salvage the movie as a whole. They aren’t enough because, ironically, they are too much.
Once again we are in a dystopian future of our own doing; it is 2152 Los Angeles and pollution and wars and general neglect has made the world a nasty place to live. The rich one percent have built a satellite in space where they live peacefully, insulated from the poverty and sickness of Earth. The satellite is Elysium, and here wealthy people can be cured of any ailment or disease by spending a few minutes in a healing chamber. Things are great on Elysium we are told, but we never really get to study this utopian world beyond a few glimpses. Also, why would these rich folks set up shop right outside Earth’s atmosphere? It is made clear they want nothing to do with the poor people back on the home planet, so it isn’t as if they communicate or work with earthlings. Is it just to brag? Who knows.
Matt Damon plays Max, one of the unfortunate earth inhabitants with a checkered past of grand theft auto and assault. He works in a factory that makes – something – and runs with a few other lowlife buddies. Max longs to travel to Elysium, just like everyone else I imagine, but his longing is sped up once he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work and is told he has five days to live. He seeks out the help of an underground criminal mastermind, Spider (Wagner Moura), to get him to Elysium. Spider agrees to help him, but first he must hijack the memories of a native Elysium-ite, played by the always reliable William Fitchner. This requires Max to be hooked up to an exoskeleton that drills right into his skull and taps into his brain. It also keeps him up and moving, because the radiation would cripple him otherwise.
The plot builds and stumbles along with more developments that don’t seem necessary. Max meets his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), who, wouldn’t you know it, has a child who is sick and would love to hitch a ride to Elysium. But Max doesn’t have time for her, even though it is the daughter of his friend and a woman he obviously loves. Not a very admirable move if you ask me. And somehow I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Jodie Foster’s character, the Secretary of Defense Delacourt, who is vile and cold and ruthless and confused on what sort of accent she wants to have. Why is she like this? Beats me. This is Foster’s worst performance I can remember.
The one bright spot as far as the characters go is Sharlto Copley, who plays a mercenary for hire named Kruger. Looking as if he just stepped out of Thunderdome, Kruger is wicked and despicable and a fantastic villain who deserves a better film. I wanted to spend all my time with Kruger and not with anyone else. He can’t save the plot, however, which is held together with duct tape and chewing gum. Any of the emotional attempts of the picture – the relationship between Max and Frey for example – fall flat. There is no time spent developing anyone in the film; Copley does his own development with a delightfully wicked role. I expected more from Elysium, and maybe more would have served the picture well. More character development, more exposition, more conversations, more patience.