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'Elysium' Movie Review: A Good Premise Lacks Follow Through

'Elysium' Movie Review: A Good Premise Lacks Follow Through

08/09/2013

Elysium is a story of exoskeletons and the messianic proclivities of white people. No, seriously.

It had the potential to be a good film, and maybe even a great one. Unfortunately, in director Niell Blomkamp’s desperate clamber for social posturing, the film sacrifices character development and any hope of fully fleshing out any of the 700 subplots, resulting in a murky cocktail of misguided subtext.

Max de Costa, played by Matt Damon, is the only character with any form of development or backstory, and that’s because he’s the Designated Messianic White Person, so we almost know him by default. Audiences have seen his character hundreds of times before...most notably in the New Testament of the Bible. I am only just barely exaggerating the Jesus Complex here: between his self-sacrificing nature, acute knowledge and acceptance of his fate, and the literal burden he bears on his back – an exoskeleton fused to his bones in a totally sterile, “seriously don’t worry guys I got this” room in a club in a junkyard.

It’s quite difficult to ignore the racist undertones that present themselves in this storyline alone. The film is set in 2154; the Earth scenes are set in Los Angeles. Everyone is speaking Spanish. Everyone. Everyone seems to be Hispanic or black, so when the only person in Los Angeles willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of mankind also happens to be the only white man seen on the planet, it’s a bit suspect and more than a bit uncomfortable. I am quite sure this message was not deliberate; however, the intended message misses its mark and instead audiences wind up getting a glimpse of some very special form of racism.

Another main character is Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the meticulously groomed Secretary of the State figure with an ice cold demeanour matching her steely gaze and what appears to be a face frozen in a permanent frown. With short blonde hair, blue eyes, and a French accent when she remembers she’s supposed to have one, Delacourt’s role is to preserve the serene and decidedly vanilla lifestyle of Elysium, sponsored by Talbots and Pottery Barn.

Her subplot is especially baffling and, more importantly, unnecessary: her corrupt thirst for power has put her in the company of a sleek CEO, Carlyle (William Fichtner), who is a citizen of Elysium running a droid manufacturing company on Earth, and a completely insane sociopathic former spy named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) living in Los Angeles who looks like Chuck Norris (beard and all) and has a lifestyle reminiscent of the villains from Mad Max and the Droogies in A Clockwork Orange. Delacourt’s backstory is completely unknown. We know two things about her: she wants to depose the President and she really, really hates immigrants. So much so that she overrides Presidential authority and orders Kruger to destroy several spaceships attempting to enter Elysium’s airspace, resulting in dozens of casualties, without any semblance of emotion. Her desire to unseat the President drives her to attempt a reboot of Elysium’s central operating system, which would write out the President completely and instead, presumably, put her in charge. She trusts Carlyle to carry this immense secret and, more importantly, download the reboot into his brain to implement it later, but the basis of her trust in him (and, for that matter, her trust in Kruger) is a mystery. Perhaps all great sociopaths think alike. Maybe they’re in a creepy, emotionless love triangle. For all we know, they hung out in high school and Kruger was Delacourt’s prom date. There are no clues. In a movie awash with disappointing character dynamics, a truly one-dimensional villain is probably the biggest blunder of them all.

And next we have the romantic foil: Frey. Frey, played by Alice Braga, is someone that Max knew as a child. When they meet up purely by chance after Max has been sufficiently abused by a police android and she’s his nurse, they rehash good times (she asks him if he’s still stealing cars) and Max comes to find that Frey has a child. This child, riddled with cancer, is about as one-dimensional as everyone else, and both she and Frey feel extraneous, like they were thrown in the film as the token Woman and Child Combo just to make sure there’s some degree of compassion in there somewhere… that someone will mourn Max if his mission doesn’t succeed.

The movie is not without merit, however. Though there’s nothing new about decaying societies living in squalor, Blomkamp is able to masterfully add creative touches that keep the world from slipping into the domain of the trite and tired. The police are robots, but still maintain that valuable sense of superiority by engaging in cold brutality. The parole officers are also machines, though substantially creepier mechanical dolls that look like something off of the Coney Island Boardwalk. They have no processor for sympathy. They strictly analyze offenses and numbers, ensuring a lack of humanity and compassion. It is quite jarring when Max gets his probation extended by several months because he cracked an ill-placed joke to a humorless police officer. There are also several exciting action sequences, especially between Max and Kruger once Kruger gets an exoskeleton of his own. Even though it’s a very random occurrence that Kruger just absolutely has to best Max at something, it still makes for a good fight with a satisfying ending. The movie is sleekly designed, with interesting aesthetics, creative weapon design and references to 2001: A Space Odyssey that are absolutely obligatory in every film set in space.

Elysium is entertaining, with a very compelling premise. Unfortunately, the gripping narrative on class warfare that Blomkamp was clearly aiming for falls quite short. At no point are any of these characters explored enough to encourage someone to care about what happens to them. This movie is recommended for those who expect an action movie with a Chuck Norris doppelganger. It is not recommended for anyone who wants something more.

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