Film review: Elysium’ leaves more questions than answers

Film review: Elysium’ leaves more questions than answers
Matt Damon, right, and Jose Pablo Cantillo in “ELYSIUM.” Photo by Marc Weinstock

“Elysium” expresses a burning desire to prove its point but can’t show it and no amount of rich visuals and action can disguise that. 

In the year 2154, humanity is divided into two classes: the rich, who inhabit a high-tech station called Elysium in a clean, utopian environment, and everyone else, who are stuck on an Earth ravaged by overpopulation, pollution, and disease. The official in charge of overseeing the station, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), has no qualms about destroying any approaching ships to enforce anti-immigration laws.

Terminally ill ex-con/factory worker Max (Matt Damon) takes on a mission that, should he succeed, will not only save his life but could also bring back equality to humankind. He straps into an exoskeleton and abducts a greedy businessman (William Fichtner) in order to steal his identity and gain access to Elysium. But no sooner does Max acquire the necessary information than he attracts the attention of Delacourt’s police forces, led by Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

From a visual standpoint, the film could not have looked more stunning. Director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) paints Earth as a dying world, awash with rundown buildings, sick humans, and overcrowded streets, while envisioning Elysium as this pristine, luxurious paradise where problems can be solved with the push of a button. Pretty much every image-related aspect — art direction, set design, special effects — is of excellent quality, and his naturalistic cinematography immerses the audience in this universe.

Such a dichotomous setting is bound to have opportunities for fantastic action sequences, and “Elysium” doesn’t disappoint. From shuttles getting shot down to exoskeleton-enhanced humans engaging in brutal fistfights, you can bet no moviegoer hungry for action will leave the theater unsatisfied. In particular the confrontations between Damon and Copley are defined by an energetic intensity that grips you by the nerves and supercharges them into overdrive.

But once you look past the visual aesthetics and the action set pieces, you’ll realize Blomkamp’s follow-up to “District 9” suffers from the “style over substance” problem that plagues the science fiction genre.

He wishes to comment on class division, immigration, and healthcare, but these topics are never fully explored in detail. Come to think of it, whatever themes he intended to address become lost in the special effects and nonstop action sequences. It’s kind of disappointing to see a science fiction film speak of wanting to be taken seriously when it does the complete opposite without even realizing it.

By the way, what is it about these rich vs. poor allegories always ending up one-sided? Earth’s people are meant to be pitied; yet there’s not a single citizen of Elysium who can be seen as noble or sympathetic to their plight. I mean, if you’re going to shed light on the separation of class between the haves and have-nots, wouldn’t it be more effective if you looked at both sides of the issue?

Character development is surprisingly simplistic for a film that claims to be of serious dramatic quality. We never get to see the bond between Max and his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) develop beyond the flashbacks to their younger days, and Secretary Delacourt is little more than your typical power-hungry bureaucrat. And more importantly, here’s the one big question that goes unanswered: what are Max’s feelings about wanting to live on Elysium?

The cast had the potential to elevate “Elysium” beyond your run-of-the-mill futuristic blockbuster, but the performances we see are average in quality — adequate enough to not be labeled as bad, not impressive enough to be considered good.

Normally I’d be applauding Matt Damon for playing another great role, but he turns out to be strictly passable here. As for Jodie Foster, it seemed as though Blomkamp didn’t give her villainous character enough material to work with despite her best efforts. Alice Braga is wasted in an utterly pointless supporting role that only slows down the narrative. In contrast, Sharlto Copley is positively vicious and creepy; if anyone can stake a claim to “Elysium,” it’s him.

Your ticket to “Elysium” won’t take you very far. Word to the wise: wait until it’s available on Netflix.

MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.

Running time: 1 hour and 49 minutes

Playing: In general release


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