Can Judge Michael Nazarewycz be cured of his fear of flying, if he has to fly somewhere for the cure?
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's…the 1%.
I remember seeing the trailers for Elysium and thinking that the notion of dystopia versus utopia could make for an interesting story. I still think it can. It simply doesn't do it here.
Facts of the Case
It's the year 2154. On dystopian Earth are the Have Nots, living in egregiously oppressive conditions, where everything is dirty, everyone is ugly, there is a constant haze in the air, and hospitals, giving off that socialized medicine vibe, are overrun with patients. On utopian Elysium are the Haves, living in fabulously comfortable conditions, where everything is shiny, everyone is beautiful, the air is purified, and hospitals don't exist because people have these machines that scan bodies and, if illness or disease is detected (even cancer), that illness or disease is eliminated on the spot.
On Earth, repeat criminal and Have Not Max (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting) suffers an accident at his factory job that leaves him with five days to live. With less than nothing to lose, he volunteers to attempt to breach Elysium in an effort to have himself—and a sick little girl very important to him—cured. Standing in his way is the evil Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs), who wants to keep Elysium in its pristine and privileged state.
Elysium is a dreadful film, one that is best described as writer/director Neill Blomkamp's (District 9) 109-minute love letter to the Occupy movement.
While the rich/poor conflict is not a new theme, Blomkamp's approach is one for the modern era, particularly an era when the political climate has created such a great socioeconomic divide. The financial difference between Earth and Elysium is obvious, but Blomkamp decides to raise the stakes and make the specific issue one of healthcare—namely, the Haves not only have the best healthcare, they have the ultimate healthcare, and they are not sharing it with the Have Nots. To distance themselves by relocating to what amounts to a space island only separates them further.
It's a fine basis for a sticky political message wrapped in a sweet sci-fi candy shell, but to do so, Blomkamp needs to either give us characters that we care about or a compelling story that the characters go through (or both, preferably). Instead what he gives us is a board game with flat pieces that move from the starting square with the goal to get to the finishing square.
The story is threadbare. Max's childhood is covered briefly, which sets up to contribute to his trip to Elysium. Beyond that, the film becomes an exercise in Max trying to get from Earth to Elysium, then once there, getting to one of those disease-curing beds. As an added "plot point," Max has code downloaded into his head (think The Matrix) that, once loaded onto Elysium's mainframe, will grant every inhabitant of Earth citizenship on Elysium so that everyone can get the same grand level of healthcare. That's right. The code changes people's citizenship status in a database. I guess in 2154, CTRL-Z is no longer a thing.
The big literal obstacle Max faces (there is nothing as deep as figurative or metaphoric here) comes from Delacourt's off-the-books black bag man, Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley (The A-Team). Kruger is another flat piece on a board, just like everyone else. He is the character who has no issues killing people and says a lot of crazy things (much of which was improvised, per one of the disc's extras—and it shows) and he knows his way around myriad weapons. He has no personality and no depth. He's the "crazy bad guy."
William Fichtner (The Lone Ranger) is Carlyle, a corporate executive who is sent to improve profits at Max's factory. He's a suit that represents the 1%, and were it not for the fact that he is also the physical link between the two locales, he would be wholly unnecessary.
The biggest character sins, though, are with Delacourt and Max. In the former, Blomkamp and Foster give us an icy and power-mad politician determined on doing things the way she sees fit. She is driven by…well, we don't know. She's icy and power-mad and so on. That's it. Like Kruger and Carlyle, Delacourt is "the BLANK character"; in this case, she is the evil authority figure (read: politician).
As for Max, he's the "Everyman Hero character" with no real rooting interest. I'm not sure why they bothered with his thin backstory, other than to create a situation where a child is in peril. Also, he's an ex-con, which might lend to ensuring he has the ability to get this particular job done, but it does nothing else for the character except maybe allow the police (robots) to harass him, creating even more "look how evil The Man is" sentiment.
And that right there is the root of the overall problem: this film is not based on a compelling story or populated by rich characters; it's based on a philosophy and the poster children that that philosophy creates. Elysium = elitists = evil. Earth = downtrodden = good. That's not a three-act film with three-dimensional characters, that's a trifold political brochure.
For all of Elysium's story and character shortcomings, the technical
execution is excellent. As a reminder, this review is for the DVD (not the
Blu-ray) and the picture is simply great. It presents sharp, vibrant images on
Elysium and you really feel that gritty atmosphere on Earth. The best shots,
though, are those in between, when ships travel to/from. The depth perception of
the bodies and the largeness of Elysium really impress. Complementing that
imagery is clear Dolby 5.1 Surround track.
There are two extras on the DVD (the Blu-ray release was not available for review): "Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium" (13:18) and "Engineering Utopia: Creating a Society in the Sky" (11:43). Both take detailed behind-the-scenes looks at the film from the acting and setting POVs, but sometimes the detail is TOO great. The "Collaboration" short opens with a spoiler.
Elysium is nothing more than a sci-fi version of an Occupy wet dream.
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