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Elysium

August 9, 2013
Elysium

Since Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene with District 9 four years ago, we’ve been waiting for his followup. Now Elysium is here and proving the existence of the sophomore jinx. It’s not terrible, but nothing really seems to hang together, and as a result it lacks the social commentary punch it’s looking for.

In the year 2154, the rich have escaped to an orbiting space station called Elysium, leaving the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses breathing Earth’s increasingly polluted air. Of course, many of them dream of a life on Elysium, while just as many see no possibility of improvement and let Earth degenerate into a crime-ridden slum.

Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) used to be part of that criminal underworld, but he’s out and trying to work an honest job in a factory. Still, the system is designed to keep him and all of Earth’s other residents from ever really getting out. He is an expendable cog, and when an industrial accident gives him a fatal dose of radiation and less than a week to live, they toss him out with a bottle of pills that should keep him “functional” until his organs fail.

Of course, on Elysium this wouldn’t be a problem. Every house has a bed that can cure pretty much anything in a few minutes. So Max cuts a deal: help one of his old criminal contacts with a job and get a ticket to sneak into Elysium long enough to use the bed before getting deported. The job is basically a high-tech smash and grab, but what they’re smashing is the shuttle of an Elysium resident — the CEO of Max’s factory (William Fichtner) — and what they’re grabbing is whatever information he’s carrying in a cerebral implant.

As it turns out, this is precisely the worst possible target. The CEO is a defense contractor who has just cut a deal with Elysium’s secretary of defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who wants to stage a coup to instate even more draconian policies towards the Earthbound. In his head he’s carrying a program to reboot all of Elysium’s systems. It could be used to install Delacourt as president, or to wipe away the repressive regime entirely.

Obviously this is much more valuable cargo than Max had been planning on; Delacourt dispatches the ruthless mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to retrieve it. Max seeks help from his childhood friend, Rey (Alice Braga), and his criminal contacts to escape and get to Elysium before Kruger or the radiation poisoning can kill him.

Copley really shines here, in a role very different from the one he played in District 9. Damon is well-established as a solid close-up action star by now, but unfortunately his skills are wasted. Blomkamp’s vérité style may be great for injecting a gritty realism into sci-fi situations, but it’s just awful for combat scenes, of which there are many. Even when people aren’t fighting it can be difficult to see what’s happening with the camera shaking so much.

The bigger problem is that Blomkamp’s metaphors aren’t really coherent enough to land solidly, and his world isn’t remotely convincing. The idea of a single, centralized reboot mechanism for the entire space station is a necessary MacGuffin for the story, but it makes so little sense that it’s jarring. You can get away with this in a movie like Independence Day, but not if you want your story to be taken seriously.

I understand — and indeed applaud — Blomkamp’s efforts to use science fiction to illustrate major sociological issues of class and immigration and so on. But in the effort to graft them onto a gritty action film we end up with such a weak and flimsy caricature that any proponent of the status quo could knock down and score a symbolic victory. The problem with health care is not that mean rich people have magic solutions that they won’t let poor people use at any price; it’s a complicated outgrowth of long-established systems that are profoundly difficult to root out. We can and do give away medical treatment to plenty of the global poor, even while denying the exact same medications to the poor within our own market. The problem with immigration isn’t that people want to come to America just to be here; it’s that our economic inefficiencies give rise to opportunities for the poor but not the legal means to exploit them. There are no openings for migrant workers on Elysium.

Superficially, Elysium has a lot of the flavor of a William Gibson novel, but this resemblance is only skin deep. The cyberpunk elements — which admittedly look very cool — are an unwieldy framework bolted onto a weaker substructure with some serious underlying problems. It can try to hold things together long enough to get the job done, but it can’t really fix what’s wrong.

Worth It: I hate to say it, but no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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