Last Friday night, my friends Art and Angela invited me to dinner and to go see the new Matt Damon movie Elysium. I had kind of been on the fence about going to see the film; I was initially excited when I saw the trailers for the film earlier in the summer, but after a relatively lukewarm opening weekend and not a lot of buzz surrounding the film my anticipation cooled somewhat. I don’t know that I necessarily would have gone to see Elysium in the theaters if it hadn’t been for their invitation. But the promise of good company (and two hours of Matt Damon) was enough to get me over my initial tepid interest.
My quick cooling to Elysium was somewhat surprising as I was a big fan of director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature film, District 9. I thought it was interesting and innovative and showed great promise for a first time director. The film, about the segregation of aliens that served as a metaphor for apartheid in South Africa, even garnered a best picture nomination in 2010 (probably thanks in large part to the newly expanded number of nominees). I generally like Damon in just about everything; even if he is in a crappy movie, I like his performance. On paper, I should have been more excited about Elysium. While the sci-fi angle could be a potential problem for me, depending on how much they doubled down on the hard core stuff, the film had enough going for it that I shouldn’t have been writing it off so quickly. Sure, some critics that I like and whose tastes generally align with mine were a bit underwhelmed, but they didn’t hate it. So I don’t know what exactly contributed to my complete chilling on the film, but it happened.
It turned out that my pessimism wasn’t 100% warranted; while Elysium wasn’t perfect, it was generally entertaining while I was in the theater. However, the film failed to make much of an impact on me; shortly after leaving the cinema, I kind of forgot all about it. It just didn’t make an impression. If I was writing a tag line for Elysium it would be “mildly entertaining, a little ham-handed, but ultimately forgettable.”
The world of Elysium takes place in the not too distant future; most of the natural resources of Earth have been depleted and the planet is a desolate mess. The wealthy have fled the planet and now reside on Elysium, a space station that is climate controlled and where technology has advanced to the point where they have a cure for cancer and health care for all. The poor people of Earth are ruled by robots in an authoritarian regime and live in squalor. Those who are desperate for health care often turn to local smuggler Spider, who runs renegade ships to Elysium (with apparently limited success). Elysium is protected by a ruthless Secretary of Defense (Jodi Foster) who is willing to do anything to keep Elysium, including disobeying the President and killing civilians. Max (Damon), a former criminal turned factory worker, has always dreamed of gaining access to Elysium. He is trying to leave his life of crime behind him, but when an accident at the factory leads to his exposure to a fatal dose of radiation, he teams up with Spider in a desperate attempt to reach Elysium to cure himself. There’s also a woman from Max’s past with a sick kid, but frankly I found that subplot pretty boring and think the movie would have been better off without it. Facing your own mortality should be motivation enough.
Elysium has a lot of potential, but ultimately is a fairly predictable movie. While the film is visually pretty stunning, Blomkamp’s ability to tell a story doesn’t live up to that same standard. I could have predicted most of the story of the film from the beginning; I knew how it would end and most of the plot points in-between. Blomkamp starts to create an interesting world, but doesn’t quite finish the project. Elysium has a lot of things to say about health care access and class, but it doesn’t do so in a particularly subtle or nuanced way. The rich in the film are all painted with the same broad stokes; I find it hard to believe that there aren’t any wealthy people who are concerned about the well-being of those on Earth. Foster, in particular, is the same as pretty much every thinly drawn villain in cinematic history; the only new thing that she is bringing to this role is a weird accent and some ovaries.
Blomkamp does a better job with the action sequences, which are definitely the best part of the film. Elysium had some surprising brutality; I wasn’t expecting some of the gore and violence that I witnessed. That wasn’t an issue for me, but may be something to keep in mind if you have kids. It’s not throughout the film, but there are a few scenes where the ick factor is turned up to 11. Damon has the bonafides as an action star that he really makes those scenes come alive with the help of the visual choices that Blomkamp makes. It is when the film slows down and tries to do drama that Elysium is at its weakest and most boring. The flashback device is overused, in my opinion and doesn’t add much to the story. They are only really necessary to justify the presence of Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), which as I mentioned earlier I found to be a waste and a distraction. The time spent on that silly story line could have been used to create a world with a bit more depth.
Some other thoughts:
- Damon is solid as always; it’s a shame that Max becomes so sullen in the film, since he has a lot of personality when the story begins. He doesn’t have to be cracking jokes – he is, after all, dying – but he loses any of the spark that he had earlier.
- Maybe it’s just me, but it seems equipping Damon with a crazy exoskeleton isn’t the most subtle way to infiltrate Elysium. I get why they think he needs it (I’m guessing because they thought it looked cool and then came up with a justification for it), but the dude sticks out like a sore thumb. Couldn’t have crafted something a little less conspicuous; I’m guessing people would remember a guy with that contraption melded to him, which doesn’t lend itself to an uncover mission.
- I have no idea the direction that they gave Foster for this role, but I’d put even money on the word “steely” being used. She is ice cold in this film.
- For a space colony that is all about keeping people out, they are doing a piss poor job of it. The people of Elysium may want to step up their game, since it seems pretty easy to breach their defenses, at least temporarily. You people found a cure for cancer – maybe it’s time to invest in some force fields.
- The film goes to the “woman running with sick child” well once too often; one time is a moving and effective scene, but more than that and it becomes a cliché.
- You know, just once I’d like to see a movie set in the future when things are going well. It’s always doom and gloom and vast wastelands. I know that fits better for storytelling and makes for a more interesting landscape, but once in a while it would be nice for a movie to say “the future is pretty awesome” not “nothing awaits us but a bleak and miserable experience.”
While I did find parts of Elysium on the boring side, I did genuinely enjoy most of it while it was happening. It was, however, fleeting entertainment; for all of its social commentary and a fine performance by Damon, it was ultimately disposable entertainment for me. One of the reasons it took me so long to write this review is because I couldn’t really think of much to say about it. It was perfectly mediocre, which isn’t a ringing endorsement but also isn’t a condemnation. I still think Blonkamp has potential, but he may be better equipped to direct smaller films. I’d also be interested in seeing him direct something that he didn’t write; Elysium proves that his screenwriting is not quite up to his talents behind the camera. The more you are into sci-fi, the more you may enjoy this film. I can’t say that it’s a must see, but I wouldn’t advise against seeing it either. It is definitely flawed, but it has some cool moments and sequences. It is a decent attempt, but fails to totally hit the mark.
Elysium opened nationwide on August 9th. I’m a little behind on my movie going.