Review: Neill Blomkamp's 'Elysium' Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
August 1, 2013 3:30 PM
19 Comments
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The year is 2154, and while the future may include ships that reach supersonic speeds in fifteen seconds, and advanced weaponry and technology that now interacts directly with the human body, the divide between the haves and have nots has never been greater. Los Angeles has essentially become one large barrio, a dirty, garbage-filled, decaying city that is a bleak portrait of what could happen if the current and growing prison industrial complex expands at a prodigious rate. Crime is so high that lawbreakers and potential lawbreakers are patrolled and monitored by ruthlessly efficient robots walking the beat, while those who are charged are processed in such volume that it might as well be the DMV. And one of those put through the system is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con on parole, trying to go straight after a checkered past. And these are the building blocks of an expansive world created by Neill Blomkamp in "Elysium," a brainy sci-fi effort that doesn't skimp on its blockbuster requirements, and delivers one of the most satisfying films of the summer.

With charges of robbery, assault and resisting arrest in his history, Max is nearly a veteran of the criminal lifestyle, carrying a cynicism that expresses itself as sarcasm in the face of authority. It's an attitude that winds up getting his parole extended after an encounter with some humorless cop droids, and Max's anger at the situation quickly dissipates into a grudging acceptance. He holds down a factory floor job at Armadyne, a defense company looking to renew their contract with Elysium, the space station orbiting the planet that houses the wealthy and elite, who have escaped the smog-choked, filthy atmosphere of Earth. Up above, citizens live with a pristine atmosphere, in gated community splendour, and more crucially, have access to advanced medical care that can cure any ailment—including life-threatening diseases—with no more than a high tech body scan. But of course, that luxury is protected at all costs...

The story gets kicked into motion when Max gets accidentally blasted with a lethal dose of radiation on the job, with Armadyne's medical robot coldly informing him that he has five days to live. While Max may have been trying to do good up until now, that all goes out the window, and with literally a few dozen hours left to live, he tracks down Spider (Wagner Moura), an underworld kingpin dabbling in almost anything you can imagine, who he used to work for. One of Spider's revenue streams comes from organizing flights for illegal immigrants to Elysium, and Max wants on the next departure so he can find his way to a medical bed to heal his suddenly dying body. But he'll have to do one last job first, and it's one that will see him cross paths with John Carlyle, an executive at Armadyne (William Fichtner); Secretary Rhodes, the ruthless head of defense on Elysium (Jodie Foster); and Kruger, a sadistic off-the-books Blackwater-esque special ops agent (Sharlto Copley). And in the mix as well is Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max's, who has a daughter dying of leukemia. 

And to say any more would be to spoil some of the fun, but one of the most refreshing aspects of "Elysium" is that Max is more John McClane than John McClane (especially now). While the film obviously dabbles in themes concerning the divide between the 99% and 1%, Max has no ambitions to be a hero for Earth, or even for his friends who could benefit from him breaching Elysium. His foremost concern is understandably selfish and simple: he wants to live. After he's cured, he'll worry about the rest. And Blomkamp doubles down on the stakes Max faces. While Spider outfits Max with a robotic exo-skeleton to give him droid-like strength to help him face any obstacles that come across his path, the risks go far beyond his own body failing him. Rhodes and Kruger are two peas in a brutal pod—with their methods often getting them in trouble with their superiors—refusing to blink when it comes to eliminating innocents who stand in the way of their ends, which as the film goes on, involve some big rewards should they succeed in their goals. And Max is hardly indestructible, even with his new cyborg frame. He's used to jacking cars and goods, but wielding weapons and facing foes who kill as their day job finds him often outmatched and for much of the picture he's barely hanging on by the skin of his teeth. And especially in a summer where major heroes (Wolverine, Superman, everyone in "Pacific Rim") never seemed in doubt, Max's palpable and real everyman vulnerability adds a nice dimension to the proceedings.

Visually, the film is a stunner. Just as he did in "District 9," Blomkamp's imaginative vision is grounded as much as possible in reality, so his take on what the world is like in just over 100 years, is relatable and believable. Both the scarred Los Angeles vistas and the pristine environs of Elysium are beautifully rendered, alternately gritty and coolly slick. But perhaps more crucial are the action sequences, played out almost entirely in broad, bright daylight and executed near perfectly, offering an antidote to every murky, dark, 3D CGI-fest we've seen this year. Blomkamp doesn't hide his actors or gum up scenes with lots of digital effects; the set pieces here have clearly been well thought-out, choreographed and staged and you can actually see what's happening, which makes them all the more thrilling. His blend of digital effects with practical locations and props is pretty much seamless, and "Elysium" offers a strong argument that an immersive experience doesn't need to be beholden to 3D and layers upon layers upon layers of VFX. Even though Blomkamp has a much bigger budget to play with here than he did on "District 9," he still uses those resources judiciously and to greater effect than helmers given oodles of cash and FX teams at their beck and call.

Of course, one can't talk about "Elysium" without delving into the underlying idea of the picture, which one review has already knee-jerkingly called "openly socialist." To view "Elysium" simply as a sci-fi movie masking opinions about policy is to miss the point. Blomkamp's film is more about humanity than any partisan politics, and it's that quality that marks the best films that make seemingly hot-button issues a centerpiece of the ideals they wish to explore. Blomkamp's arguments for healthcare for all and a more humane approach to immigration and poverty is less rooted in liberal politics than in the simple idea of watching out for your fellow man. And, for the most part, Blomkamp gets this across through narrative rather than exposition, and it hardly hectors these points home.

And yet for all the accomplished direction, fine performances from the entire cast (though the villains do veer toward one-dimensionality) and the successful landing of a very ambitious story, Blomkamp stumbles in the basic structural work of the screenplay. Most glaringly, the film is saddled by some rather corny flashback sequences that establish a mostly marginal backstory for Max that tries to lend his journey an epic weight. These scenes, in which we learn of his orphan background, and witness some prophetic advice from a nun, are not just poorly written (the dialogue is almost laughably amateur and on-the-nose), they actually undercut the impact of Max's arc by overplaying its hand. It's one of the few instance where Blomkamp stumbles in the film, but it's also the most clunky and clumsy misstep. And while the film trades in some minor contrivances and conveniences for the sake of the plot, they aren't so egregious that they can't be easily forgiven. (Though, the film's lack of acknowledgement of what's happening on the rest of the planet—Japan or China or Russia aren't able to build space stations?—becomes a question that looms the longer the movie goes on.)

With "Elysium," Blomkamp has made good on the promise of "District 9" and proven that working on a bigger canvas doesn't mean compromising on smarts or aspirations to deliver tentpole-sized stories with a thoughtful backbone. And really, it's those qualities that set "Elysium" apart from the slog of sequels, spinoffs, remakes and superhero movies. It has the audacity (at least in Hollywood terms) of aiming for something original both in concept and design, and that Blomkamp's nails it in a fashion as entertaining, thrilling and memorable as this is all the more reason you need to see it. [B+]

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19 Comments

  • Shmeckle | August 19, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    B+? Really?! The movie has no internal logic, though it's not ashamed to beat us over the head mercilessly with it's message. I'm old school, if you want to send a message, use Western Union. Instead, try telling a good story - and by that, I mean, please don't repeat the prologue (in which the nun tells kid Matt Damon that he's here for a purpose and he's going to do something great). Why is no one ever home on Elysium? And if there's a machine to cure all ills and let you live forever, what about the food supply? Heavy-handed politics + missed opportunities + Jodie Foster's wavering accent (Afrikaner? Aussie? British? Or just bad dialect coach?) = a C at best. Let Blomkamp direct, but hire a real writer.

  • Lynn | August 13, 2013 1:47 PMReply

    Elysidum. Too much dramatic loud unnecessary background music. Plus it was derivative - I Robot meets The Hunger Games.

  • Thomas M. Calderon | August 12, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    This is my review, what in the hell did they have to use Mexican gang with gang tag WTF.

  • Paul | August 11, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    I am very glad I found your review. I saw this film and then read reviews about "slick Hollywood violence" and (not unexpected) being "openly socialist." To be honest, I thought it was "openly Christian" ("Do unto others...") in terms of any message being offered. As for the violence, as many have pointed to, it does seems much more "believable" in comparison to other CGI offerings this summer. And, in my opinion, also unlike many Hollywood offerings, where the violence is there for it's own sake, Elysium carries an important message with the mayhem. Does anyone really think you can deny "them" a cure for their child's cancer and not expect a violent pushback? As John Harrison remarked in Star Trek: Into Darkness: "Is there anything you wouldn't do for your family?" Does this film go over the top on the spectacle and fighting? Of course-but that is the way great storytelling has always operated, going back to Homer's Illiad (the Goddess Athena spearing the God of War Ares on the battlefield of the Trojan War is over the top-but it was put there for a reason). For sure, the focus remains throughout on LA vs Elysium and the connection that Max makes between them (the best loved tales tend to be about the Hero striving). However, I find it easy to imagine a future where the lines of nationality, race, gender, and religion have been obliterated by the fierce demarcation placed by the powerful between those have and those who have-not. Is this film perfect in every aspect? Perhaps not, but if perfection is one's expectation of anything made in this world, you will live with a lot of disappoint. Does it tell a good story? Yes, I think it does, in an epic, very traditional way.

  • JOHN | August 10, 2013 1:55 AMReply

    Had high hopes for this one and was a little disappointed. Effects and the look are top-notch. Foster's high-speak was weird and distracting. And as for the action scenes being shot so well "you can actually see what's happening" - NO WAY IN HELL. This was shaky cam at it's worst. I get that the director wanted to go for as much realism as he could all around but it didn't translate when putting the camera IN the action. Even when weapons are fired it's often hard to tell where they are hitting. So much to love about this movie and these shortcomings should have been easy fixes.

  • RC | August 9, 2013 7:23 PMReply

    One of the most enjoyable movies of the summer? Really? Is that because we're standing it next to LONE RANGER? While ELYSIUM was visually pleasing and well acted, the screenplay was a disaster, filled with one convenience after another and absolute juvenile politics. One dimensional characters fulfilling archetypes and an ending you could see from the first five minutes of the film. DISTRICT 9 was a great, smart film that didn't hit you in the head with hammer trying to deliver its message. Whoever is trying to pass ELYSIUM off as an intelligent movie is as dumb as the studio thinks the audience is.

  • Me | August 9, 2013 1:39 AMReply

    Hi

  • Jack | August 4, 2013 1:18 AMReply

    I was extremely disappointed with this movie. I had high hopes, I really did, but I hate to report that Elysium is not nearly as smart or as interesting as its premise. This review--much like the movie itself-- has its heart in the right place, but misses the mark by a long shot.

  • Jack | August 4, 2013 1:18 AMReply

    I was extremely disappointed with this movie. I had high hopes, I really did, but I hate to report that Elysium is not nearly as smart or as interesting as its premise. This review--much like the movie itself-- has its heart in the right place, but misses the mark by a long shot.

  • victor enyutin | August 2, 2013 9:46 PMReply

    “Elysium” by Neill Blomkamp (2013) is called by the “Rolling Stone” reporter Peter Travers (PT) “Hell-raiser with social conscience”. For those who still remember popular revolutions and their consequences “hell-raising” is not associated with one’s conscience, but rather with despair and frustration which are not good advisers as what to do. Hell-raising is more related to blind destructiveness and usually result of the impossibility of finding ways out of unbearable social situations.
    The film is simultaneously a drum-beat revolutionary and cowardly not in a dystopian but in the very present day sense. It calls for attacking the establishment ruled by the one-percenters, and it represents this establishment as a remote future (we see those who serve the “one-percenters” in a satellite station over earth. They‘re called droids: robots who rule earth in the name of the financial elite and spy on people to prevent mutiny. The main character, Max (Matt Damon), is one of the constructors/engineers of the droids/robots, who at the same time “cannot resist pissing them off” (PT). Max’s noble acts of dissidence, in other words, are “to piss off the managers of life, the representatives of those in power.” It is not just youth slang; it is how young people today, the target audience of the film, understand what political resistance consists of – “to piss the bosses off”. “Elysium”, in other words, represents the fight for human rights and democratic principles on the level of adolescent sensibility. Instead of helping the young people by providing them real analysis of today’s political and financial situation in our country and the world and use this information to explain them realistic ways of resisting the financial elite, the film stimulates the young to behave like fifth grader towards a hated teacher or the school principal. Simultaneously it glorifies high-tech weapons by parading Matt Damon through tough situations as super-heroic marine.
    The leader of droids is played by Jodie Foster who started her career in films which were much closer to the truth of life as it is, instead of projecting this truth into simplified future in a masked (embellished by clichés) – mythologized/infantilized form. Delivering the truth in a style of animation cartoon is distorting the truth and seducing the young minds to non-realistic ways of perceiving what’s going on in their country. The basic trick of the film is to represent us living today, as those who already have survived the rule of the one-percenters, who are invulnerable to whatever the decision-makers do and intellectually grow on Hollywood-like images until revolution will breakout in future by the effort of a bunch of super-heroic individuals armed with super-machineguns. “Elysium” makes its audiences even more childish. It magically liberates us from all our problems in the very moment it depicts them to us.
    The director of the film is a South African film-maker. It is very sad that making a career in Hollywood kind of commercial film-making is more important for some people than to be occupied with analysis of real events and their meanings in the life of real people that today attracts many young Americans and foreign talents.
    Victor Enyutin

  • Francesca | August 2, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    I don't think it's phony. It's a futuristic nightmare with good action and powerful visuals, even if the screenplay has some flaws (the world is only LA? Scary). Damon's comparison to John McLane with no desire to be a hero sounds spot on to me, and I loved Foster's character, a rough baddie, similar to many real politicians, even if I would have liked to see more of her private side. The humour is there, but it's mostly dark, and displayed in Kruger's lines. Loved to see also Wagner Moura in this, great choice.

  • Summit reacher | August 2, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    More John McClane than John McClane? It's official. After Behind the Csndelabra and this, Matt Damon can do anything.

  • Thesaurusrs | August 2, 2013 11:10 AMReply

    "... one of the most satisfying films of the summer". Even though I love Matt Damon, I was kinda on the fence about this one. But, OK, you convinced me.

  • Marco Albanese | August 2, 2013 5:37 AMReply

    Elysium it's not openly socialist, but it's terribly phony, full of clichés, one dimensional characters awfully acted, with no sense of humor at all! The screenplay is so weak you could imagine all the narrative arc after 5 minutes. A complete mess that ends with the usual boring "wrestling match" between the good guy and the bad guy. Obviously these are my two cents...

  • Mass | August 4, 2013 9:10 PM

    @Corvo: Don't be so pretentious.

    @REDD: "You wingers", really now? First of all, I'm not a right winger. While I agree with the economic policies of the right and my own morals to ban abortion after a certain time period, that's about it. Welfare is broken and economically stupid, and so is extreme tax increase for social policies. Want an example of what increasing tax can do? Look no further than the film industry in Hollywood. No one wants to film here in Cali anymore. I'm anti war, and a long time ago I considered anti war to be a left trait, but with this administration the left may as well be the right. Your comments come straight from MSNBC and Salon.

    Even if I didn't see the film, the trailer clearly gives the whole left agenda away, the director makes far left comments all of the time too.

    And "corruption"? Really? We're still in the beginning of the second term of a leftist administration that is spying on Americans illegally and trying to cover that up, sending mercenaries on tax payer dollar to occupy Afghanistan after the troops leave, still psychologically torturing "prisoners" in Gitmo, spying on conservative groups via the IRS, laundering weapons to rebels in Syria, selling weapons to Mexican drug cartels, refusing to prosecute bankers who launder money for Mexican cartels, doing the best that they can do suppress any Government studies into the effects fracking has on our environment and communities, passing laws behind our backs and declaring it classified despite the fact that they are public servants, taking huge donations from corporations only to pass laws later on that benefit said corporations, apparently lying that there was no one around Benghazi (CIA was reportedly close by because they were smuggling weapons from Egypt to Turkey) says they're transparent yet suppresses whistleblowers and journalists.

    Yeah, but only the right is corrupt. The socialist-like left though, totally chill, right brah!?

  • Corvo | August 2, 2013 10:18 AM

    Children want "sense of humour". Once you grow up you learn to be serious.

  • redd | August 2, 2013 8:00 AM

    Ha, ha, Mass you obviously haven't seen the movie. Wow, you wingers are sooooo transparent. Your comments come directly from Breitbart. Why do you people work so hard to apologize for corruption?

  • Mass | August 1, 2013 11:16 PMReply

    lol please playlist, you're the last reviewing website I'll take seriously when you try to convince me that this film doesn't have openly left overtones. Your twitter feed is like a MSNBC twitter feed, so spare me that on your reviews please.

    With that said, film is a different avenue to express the filmmakers personal opinions about society, and the science fiction genre especially. So I don't mind it, even though I would categorize my beliefs as more right when it comes to economy, and social programs. That said, I'm extremely excited about this film. I can't wait to see it.

  • Chet | August 1, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    thanks for the in-depth review!

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