In 2009, director Neill Blomkamp released District 9, a science-fiction film using its central conceit of aliens living in South Africa as a way of discussing issues of racism and apartheid. Now, Blomkamp brings us Elysium, another sci-fi action movie promising to deal with problems of social class as District 9 did with racism. The result is a film with plenty of interesting but ultimately poorly used ideas.
Elysium is set in the mid-22nd century, where the Earth has become overpopulated. In an attempt to escape the desperate slum the planet has become, the richest citizens in the world have created Elysium, a satellite colony that is home to many luxuries, including medical beds capable of curing all ailments. The story itself concerns Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who had dreams of traveling to the orbiting paradise, but now just wants to live an ordinary life on Earth. When an accident on the job gives Max radiation poisoning, he teams back up with his former criminal partners so that he may infiltrate Elysium and use the cure-all technology.
Elysium crafts a compelling world centered around highlighting economic inequality. While the concept of richer citizens being literally worlds apart from the impoverished might be a little on the nose, it nonetheless works well. The movie does an excellent job of differentiating the planet and the space station visually; Earth is a dusty urban sprawl saturated in warm yellows and browns, while Elysium’s green fields and beautiful white buildings make it look like an interstellar country club. The film even comments on the racial components of economic disparity by having more people of color be on the planet and by having the citizens of Earth speak a mixture of Spanish and English, while the residents of Elysium speak more European (i.e. white) languages like German or French. Blomkamp put a lot of thought into creating this world, and it certainly shows.
Unfortunately, this attention to crafting the world causes the movie to skimp in other areas. The villains, for example, come off as cartoonish. The main problem the space station (Elysium) has is that so many people on Earth try to illegally immigrate to the colony in order to use the medical beds. However, the movie makes no attempt to explain why the leaders on the satellite don’t just give the medical beds to the planet. There’s no indication that the beds are too expensive, or require a rare element to function. In fact, towards the end, the movie implies that the medical beds could have been sent to Earth with absolutely no difficulty! There’s no reason why they can’t just be flown to Earth, and there is good reason why they should be (i.e. it solves the only problem the space station ever had).
Nor does the movie try to explore how the people on Elysium feel about Earth. The closest we get to an Elysium viewpoint is John Carlyle (William Fichtner), a man who hates the citizens of Earth so much he doesn’t even want them breathing near him, but it is never made clear if this is a typical response, or if Carlyle is just a particularly nasty elitist. Is the withholding of the medical beds just because Elysium hates Earth? Is it just a form of population control? The movie never makes it clear.
This lack of an explanation ends up making the leaders of Elysium seem like caricatured greedy antagonists. This wouldn’t be a problem if the movie was trying to be flat-out ridiculous satire a la Running Man, but the movie feels otherwise way too serious and grounded for that. The result is a weirdly disjointed movie where in one scene Damon faces a very somber moral dilemma, and in the next, Jodie Foster’s Elysium head of security, Delacourt, is a mustache twirl away from full-on one-dimensional villainy. If there was more time devoted to showing how Elysium’s higher ups see their home and its relationship to Earth, this complaint might of be avoided, but the movie is doing too much to ever give the audience that viewpoint.
The movie is littered with half-developed ideas like this. For instance, because of his debilitating radiation sickness, Damon has a military-grade exo-suit surgically implanted into him so that he may still fight. It’s a cool-looking design, and the concept of making the big bad action hero be a fundamentally vulnerable character is clever, but it never feels like the suit is used to the fullest. Besides a few displays of augmented strength, the suit isn’t used for much more than generic punching and shooting. Again, so much time is given to filling out the rest of the world that the core points of interest are lost.
It’s clear that Blomkamp really did have a lot to say about social inequality with the world of Elysium. Unfortunately, everything he wants to say gets muddled by the sheer volume of his ideas. While the movie does have enjoyable moments, it ends up feeling emptier than it should.