Elysium: A visually stunning film with thought-provoking premise

Published 5:18 pm Saturday, August 17, 2013

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) is one of the most imaginative and ingenious filmmakers working today. With “District 9,” Blomkamp proved he could make exciting science fiction movies that have a distinct, thought-provoking social message and original premise. Blomkamp’s long-awaited (at least to me) sophomore film, “Elysium,” is no exception. “Elysium” is not only one of the most visually stunning films of the year, but is also one that will stay with you hours after you leave the theater. I think everyone can agree that we live in a world of haves vs. have-nots, and while this message is certainly the heart of the film, Blomkamp does not try to shove a populist agenda down the audience’s throat. It is merely a setup for the super-original story.

Although I certainly have my issues with particular aspects of the film, it is hard to criticize a movie that has such an inventive concept and back-story. In fact, one of my main critiques is that I don’t know more about this world. I am so interested in the concept, I would have loved to see more of a focus on different aspects of Elysium. What are the citizens like? Do any have family members back on Earth? What type of people can hover over a disease-ridden planet, with extensive daily casualties, and not feel any sort of guilt? Unlike Will Smith’s terrible film “After Earth,” Elysium is the type of idea that could actually develop into TV shows and prequels.

Set in 2154, Elysium is a dystopic story centered on an almost inhabitable Earth, which has become polluted, overpopulated and diseased. So much so, the wealthy elite decided to leave the world behind and create a new luxurious “planet” (that resembles the California coast) on a spaceship called Elysium. On Elysium, the citizens live a cushy existence in huge, elegant mansions and have machines that cure them of any illnesses. They also have an affinity for speaking French. How pretentious.

Though Elysium is only a 20-minute shuttle ride away, and is easily seen in the skies above Earth (a constant unattainable beacon of prosperity), the only way to get there is by buying an extremely expensive ticket. Earth-dwellers can’t afford that and can’t even make a trip up to seek medical attention. Sadly, they must make the best of a third-world existence on a polluted planet. In Los Angeles, where the Earth part of this story takes place, the average citizens barely have anything to their names. They have to breathe in polluted air every day, work labor-intensive jobs (if they have a job at all), and deal with a society that is managed by robots; imagine having everything run by automated messages. Maybe this movie should be categorized as a horror film.

To ground the film, Blomkamp focuses his camera lens on Max (Matt Damon), a man without a family who grew up in a Los Angeles area orphanage (as we see in flashbacks). Since he was a kid, Max promised his best friend Frey that he would one day earn enough money to get them to Elysium and start a new life. However, that dream slowly started to fade throughout the years, especially after Max got into trouble with the law. A reformed convict, Max now works at Armadyne, a large government contractor that is basically the backbone of Elysium. It creates and runs the robot military corps that polices Earth and is in charge of the computer system that manages Elysium. Unfortunately, Max has an accident one day at work and is exposed to lethal doses of radiation. Because Armadyne cares little about their workers, Max is left to die. His only hope of survival is to get to Elysium and heal himself in a fancy machine. However, entrance into Elysium is basically impossible. How will Max get the money for his ticket?

Cut to Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium’s ruthless Secretary of Defense, who incurs the President’s wrath after having Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a secret agent stationed on Earth, blow up ships full of people trying to flee Earth and sneak into Elysium. Delacourt is tired of the President’s peaceful ways so she asks the CEO of Armadyne to write a code that would essentially shut down and reset the entire computer system on Elysium, placing her in charge. Things seem to be going well with her plan until her story runs into Max’s.

In many recent movies (especially in the science fiction genre), filmmakers fail to make the main character likable. This is not the case for Elysium. Matt Damon knows how to bring the best out of his characters, especially in the case of Max. The good thing with Damon is that even when his characters are at their darkest moments, you can still count on him to bring a little levity to the situation. There aren’t many actors out there who can be funny, serious, dramatic and also look believable carrying a gun. Not to mention, Damon needs a serious pat on the back for going from Liberace’s bedfellow (“Behind The Candelabra”) to a badass anti-hero in a sci-fi summer tent pole.

The issues I have with the movie lie mostly in the characters on Elysium, especially Jodie Foster’s Delacourt. I did not enjoy Foster in this movie at all. She has a really weird accent that is some amalgamation of French and South African. Bottom line: it was very distracting. I spent most of the time trying to figure out why she had this bizarre accent when I should have been paying attention to what she was saying. Apart from the accent, her acting was really exaggerated as well. Instead of projecting power and unrelenting determination, Delacourt was completely useless. The only thing fierce about her was her haircut.

I would have also liked to see how the citizens of Elysium perceive the people on Earth. How can they live such happy lives, while there is such death and destruction right below their feet. Delacourt, President Patel, and a few random officials were the only people we really heard from and it would have been nice to at least hear regular Elysium citizens’ thoughts on their unfortunate brethren. The way the movie is set up, it almost feels like the commanders are the only people keeping the less fortunate on Earth, but I don’t think that is Blomkamp’s intention.

As I have said numerous times, I absolutely love movies that I have never seen before and “Elysium” is certainly that. The storyline is completely original, the action is thrilling, and the performances (besides Foster) are engaging. What is better than that? While there are some things I would have changed, “Elysium” is a movie that will keep you entertained through and through. Action-heavy sci-fi films are meant to be seen on the big screen, so make sure you don’t miss out on the fun this weekend.

My Review: B+

LAUREN BRADSHAW grew up in Courtland, graduated from Southampton Academy and doubled-majored in foreign affairs and history at the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, D.C., and can be reached at lnb5e@virginia.edu.