Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Release date: August 9, 2013
U.S. box office: $93 million (38th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $286.1 million (26th best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 108 days
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 68 percent
Metacritic score: 61
Letterboxd average grade: 3/5
“For all its simple politics, clanging dialogue, and underwritten roles—only Damon’s natural, and deepening, ability to suggest unspoken disappointment gives his character dimension—Elysium works, though never as well as it should. Blomkamp has lost none of his ability, on display throughout District 9, to create visceral action scenes that feature the tech of tomorrow but have the immediacy of powder burns or a scraped knuckle.” — Keith Phipps
“Elysium is an action movie made for people thinking about something besides things blowing up. If at times the film’s connections between today’s world and the fantasy world are broadly drawn, an obvious idea is better than no idea at all. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium has a family resemblance to Blomkamp’s earlier film, District 9, with its mix of a thoroughly realized dystopian future with an underlying social concern.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
“Besides overplaying its subtext, the other major flaw of Elysium is Foster's performance, perhaps this accomplished actress’ most risible work since Siesta. Strutting around in power suits, barking at lackeys and doing her best Alexander Haig, it's like watching a Joan Crawford impersonation delivered in that vexing accent from After Earth. Still, as an effects-laden action piece, Elysium delivers the goods. It might not be the thinking man's fill-in-the-blank that some viewers were eagerly anticipating, but it’s a solid adventure that oversells its deeper meanings.— Alonso Duralde, TheWrap
“Elysium doesn’t have the same brashness [as District 9]. Though the plot specifics are different, thematically it looks and feels almost like a sequel, made with a lot more money though not with more ingenuity or feeling. The Earth landscape, a wasteland of decrepit tower blocks, is more elaborate than the garbage-strewn tent cities of District 9, but also far less poetic. (The star of District 9, South African actor Sharlto Copley, shows up here as well, in a smaller role as a crusty, bearded baddie.) And while Blomkamp’s message is morally stalwart, his delivery system sure is a bummer: Andrew Niccol’s similarly themed 2011 In Time was both more stylish and more effective, a serious movie that hit its mark without taking itself too seriously.” — Stephanie Zacharek, The Village Voice
Even with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining an A-list cast, the main subject of most pre-release Elysium coverage was its wunderkind South African director, Neill Blomkamp. In 2006, Peter Jackson selected Blomkamp to direct the feature-film version of the popular Xbox game Halo, but after six months of development, the project fell apart. In the wake of its collapse, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh helped Blomkamp get a heady found-footage science-fiction film based on one of the director’s early shorts off the ground. District 9, which turned a story of stranded, ghettoized aliens in Johannesburg into an allegory for South African apartheid, made a star of its unknown lead actor, Sharlto Copley, earned $210 million worldwide against a $30 million budget, and picked up four 2010 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Like the “prawns” of his calling-card film, Blomkamp had arrived.
It was fitting that Blomkamp was 33 when his District 9 follow-up, Elysium, was released in early August 2013; many of the pieces about him and his film describe the director with near-messianic reverence. A lengthy profile in Wired, for example, described his hatred of Hollywood’s “fear-based, bottom-line worshipping,” implicitly positioning him as the man who would bring big ideas back to big-budget filmmaking. After District 9 became an international sensation, Sony and Media Rights Capital gave Blomkamp more than $100 million to make Elysium, and articles leading up to the film’s release raved about him as an aberration in the modern studio system; the guy who was “singularly equipped to make this kind of politically provocative popcorn movie.”
While writers were working overtime to bestow Blomkamp with the title of “The Next Big (But Smart) Thing,” he was working just as hard to reject it. He told the Los Angeles Times that while he was happy to be known as a guy who “makes films that have a point,” he also said that if he was pigeonholed as a maker of “political films” he would “put a gun in [his] mouth.” Critics hailed Elysium’s “intelligent bit of futurism,” and fondly recalled a time when science-fiction films like it “had something to say”—but Blomkamp denied any such aspirations. “Elysium doesn’t have a message,” he told Wired.
The muddled, messy film Blomkamp produced reflects his mission to make something with “a point” but without a “message.” True to its director’s words, Elysium boasts big ideas, then does very little with them. It hinges on a metaphor similar to the one in District 9: haves and have-nots separated by corrupt, militarized corporations and lots of futuristic gadgets and technology. In the case of Elysium, it’s the year 2154, and the world’s elites have fled Earth for a floating utopian space station named Elysium. Meanwhile, the vast majority of a “diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated” planet are left to fight it out below, while an unfeeling robotic bureaucracy keeps them in line.
It’s a fairly ingenious setup for a slice of science-fiction social commentary, and the sight of the desperate poor scrounging for pennies while the haughty, heartless rich protect their “perfect” society at all costs evokes the Occupy Wall Street movement and recent revolutions around the world. But Blomkamp told Wired that any overtones of cultural relevance weren’t “even a consideration,” while professing his admiration for Transformers director Michael Bay. “I like the way he composes scenes and action,” he explained, adding, “He’s inspiring.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Elysium’s political components are forgotten almost as quickly as they’re established, as doomed ex-con and factory worker Max Da Costa (Damon) desperately fights to get from Earth to Elysium, where a “Med-Bay”—a magical machine with seemingly unlimited healing abilities—is his only hope of survival after a fatal dose of radiation. Once Max gets fitted for a strength-enhancing “exo-suit” and agrees to help an old criminal associate (Wagner Moura) in the heist of some crucial information from a corrupt CEO (William Fichtner), Elysium becomes a non-stop chase and shootout—and its brainy premise devolves into mindless action.
Ironically, despite Blomkamp’s fear of being pigeonholed as a didactic filmmaker, Elysium’s politics only look sharper and more prescient one year later. Los Angeles circa 2154 is a sad, brutal place, policed (and seemingly governed) by insensitive robots. Two robo-cops randomly search Max on his way to work, breaking his arm in the process. That gets his parole extended in an Orwellian exchange with a robo-parole-officer. “Stop talking,” the bot replies when Max tries to plead his case. There is no arguing with authority in Elysium’s future; you’re guilty without the possibility of proving your innocence. In a society that’s rapidly devolving from inhumane to utterly inhuman, the only options are submission or death. In the immediate wake of the angry protests in Ferguson, Missouri—and the shockingly aggressive police response—these scenes are absolutely chilling.
The design of Max’s parole-officer robot—vacant eyes, cruel smirk, textureless black hair—is absolutely perfect. So is the rest of Elysium’s visual aesthetic. Although Blomkamp doesn’t explore much of the world as it exists in 2154 beyond some Los Angeles slums (shot in a toxic dump in Mexico) and the gleaming mansions and sinister inner corridors of Elysium (shot in Vancouver suburbs), those locations and sets are brilliantly conceived and richly textured. Blomkamp has a background in computer effects and animation; he supposedly lured Damon to the project by showing him an extensive graphic novel he’d created in collaboration with the visual-effects artists at Jackson’s Weta Digital.
Whatever the film’s other issues, Elysium’s imagery is incredible, and it keeps revealing one new visual idea and gadget after another—heatseeking mines that attach themselves to targets and then explode, and “Chemrail” guns that can shoot bullets at impossible velocity. But again, Blomkamp’s focus on action at all costs hurts the movie. He creates such a detailed world that the audience wants to wander through it, but he’s only interested in barreling ahead to the next gunfight.
The cast. Blomkamp didn’t get his top choice to play Max—he originally asked Ninja of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, and later offered the part to Eminem (who was only interested if Blomkamp shot the film in Detroit)—but he still got Matt Damon, one of the biggest names in Hollywood, plus Foster as power-mad Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt, and District 9’s Copley as her psychotic mercenary enforcer Kruger. And yet, with all that talent, Elysium is one of the worst-acted blockbusters in recent history.
Let’s start with Damon, who at least gives a sturdy (though unmemorable) performance as Max. The problem isn’t what Damon does so much as what he is—namely, a white guy. Every one of Max’s allies in Los Angeles is Latino: his former boss Spider (Moura), his old buddy Julio (Diego Luna), his love interest Frey (Alice Braga). Even his name, Max Da Costa, suggests a character who should be Hispanic. Except for the bosses at Max’s job—who represent the white power establishment—Earth seems completely devoid of Caucasians—because they’ve all gone to Elysium, which is whiter than a bleached wedding dress.
Damon is a fine actor, and one of the most dependable action heroes in modern Hollywood, but all of Elysium’s subtext about immigration, race, and class would be greatly enhanced with a person of color at Elysium’s center. The film offers a flimsy textual explanation for Damon’s skin color—he’s an orphan who was raised by Spanish-speaking nuns—but he’s still a stereotypical white savior, freeing the ethnic characters from the oppression they couldn’t escape without his help. The only conceivable reason for casting Damon (or any well-established white movie star) as Max is for his ticket-selling abilities, particularly overseas—a concession to Hollywood’s “fear-based, bottom-line worshipping” that Blomkamp supposedly despises. (A few critics made similar arguments about District 9.)
On the other hand, Foster seems like an ideal choice for her role; with her sleek blonde hair, blue eyes, and unblemished skin, Foster looks every bit a remorseless Aryan overlord. But her performance, which is big and broad, like the bad guy from a Saturday-morning cartoon, seems completely divorced from the rest of the movie, which is grim and gritty, like a documentary of an inevitable future. Everything she does feels out of place, from her nonsensical evil plans to her bizarre, indeterminate accent, which critics had a field day trying to pin down. Here are just a few of the attempts to describe it:
“Swerves between American, British, and French.” — Matt Goldberg, Collider
“English with a kind of vaguely British hardness.” — Wesley Morris, Grantland
“French.” — William Goss, Film.com
“French? Lithuanian?”—The Playlist
“I couldn’t tell you what accent she was mangling. Perhaps all of them?” — Kyle Smith, New York Post
(Personally, I thought she sounded like the love child of a vaguely European James Bond villain and a Klingon from Star Trek.)
Even if you argue that Delacourt should feel like someone from a different movie than Max (since Elysium is literally a different world from the one he lives on), that doesn’t explain the similarly over-the-top choices made by Copley, who lives on Earth while he waits for Foster’s orders. With an equally strange voice (somewhere between a South African bigot and Bobcat Goldthwait in the Police Academy movies), he saunters through his action scenes ranting and raving as he waves a katana sword. He should be menacing, but his performance is pitched so high, and his dialogue is so bad (“I was gonna heal your daughter! But now, I’ll make sure that she is never healed!”) that he mostly comes across as laughable.
All these characters look fantastic, but they don’t fit together into a cohesive whole. The same could be said of Elysium’s technology—and by extension, the movie in general. Blomkamp is bursting with visual creativity, but he’s a lot more interested in how things look than how they work, and an attentive viewer is left with a lot of questions about Elysium’s Earth circa 2154. How, for example, do the Elysium Med-Bays work? Why are they able to revive some characters (including one who literally loses half of his head to an explosion) and not others? And if the rich folks on Elysium are so hell-bent on not sharing their Med-Bays with the poor—even though apparently every house on the space station has one —why do they have spaceships full of them ready to head to Earth the moment Max succeeds in his mission? Also, if the Earth of 2154 is “vastly overpopulated,” doesn’t Max’s heroic sacrifice—curing all of the world’s sick—actually make the planet worse off than it was before? For such a supposedly “smart” movie, this is surprisingly stupid stuff.
Delacourt’s plan is similarly short-sighted. She wants to depose the president of Elysium (Faran Tahir), so she convinces Fichtner’s John Carlyle to help her mount a coup. For some reason, that involves Carlyle creating a “reboot code for Elysium” that could, in the wrong hands, make every citizen of Earth a citizen of the satellite too. Guess what? It falls into the wrong hands! And very quickly, too!
Would someone as xenophobic as Foster—who shoots ships full of desperate refugees out of the sky without batting an eye—make such a risky grab for power? There wasn’t a better way to bump off the president? Why not just get Kruger to kill him? And how would rebooting the ship make her the president even under ideal circumstances? It wouldn’t—but it does give Max the ability to finish the “very important” thing he was told since childhood he was destined to accomplish. (Side note: Is anything less dramatic than a protagonist who is fated to accomplish great things?)
Despite impressive spectacle and timely themes, Elysium has already been surpassed. Before the film’s release, much was made of the film’s exo-suits, the armor that Damon’s Max gets surgically bonded to his skeleton to help him steal the Elysium reboot code and make it to the space station before he succumbs to radiation poisoning (which he basically forgets he has, thanks to some magical pills that will supposedly keep him “functioning normally,” although he never takes them). After years of graphic novels and animation about human enhancement, Elysium was one of the first films to depict it in live-action. But Blomkamp doesn’t really do anything with Max’s suit; it makes Damon a better fighter, and it looks kind of cool as he wanders through the American wasteland, but that’s about it. This summer’s Edge Of Tomorrow, with Tom Cruise as a reluctant alien warrior, blew Elysium away in the exo-suit department, showing its hero’s gradual evolution from clumsy noob to ultimate warrior.
Elysium was also eclipsed by this summer’s Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian science-fiction film about a class struggle between the last human survivors of a new ice age. Like Elysium, Snowpiercer touches on issues of wealth distribution, environmental catastrophe, dwindling natural resources, and the militarization of police. As with Elysium, the logistics of its science-fiction world—where a train in perpetual motion travels the entire world once per year—and the finer points of its story—about the mistreated poor from the back of the train attempting to claim wealthy elites’ front of the train for themselves—don’t make a whole lot of sense.
The key difference between the two, though, is that for all its darkness, Snowpiercer is still a fun movie, with plenty of bleak humor and lively performances. Its plot holes or gaps of logic don’t particularly matter, because the film is such an engrossing ride that there’s little time to stop and contemplate them. Elysium, in contrast, plays like a 20-minute lecture about social injustice, followed by a series of extremely gory tech demos. It’s dry, dour stuff, even when it all boils down to two guys in exo-suits punching each other in a celestial paradise.
Maybe audiences’ (and my own) expectations were too high for Elysium. It’s not Blomkamp’s fault that the press wants to cast him as a weightier filmmaker than he is; if he wants to make slightly brainier Michael Bay movies, that’s his prerogative. But if those are really his aspirations, Blomkamp might be too smart—and too serious—for his own good. Elysium’s opening scenes are brimming with cool ideas, and its future world is fascinating to contemplate. It’s too good of a concept to waste on empty, vacuous action—and too depressing, in both concept and execution, to really let viewers soak in the visceral thrills. There’s no pleasure in any of it. Say what you will about Michael Bay, but his work never feels this joyless. Who wants escapism that feels like punishment?
It will be interesting to see what Blomkamp does with his next project, yet another socially conscious science-fiction film with Sharlto Copley, this time called Chappie. Will Blomkamp fully embrace his intellectual side? Or will he indulge his inner Bay fanboy, and drown his beliefs in fights and explosions? The more I think about Elysium, the more I think he’s already done the latter.