Review: ‘Elysium' long on smarts, a little short on action
Published: Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 5:29 p.m.
This summer has been overrun by movies that offer plenty of explosions, fight scenes and thrills without the benefit of an interesting story or intriguing characters. Now along comes “Elysium,” a movie that serves up a meaty narrative with actual people at the center of it, yet it's partially undone because of poor pacing and a certain lack of visceral excitement.
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
What “Elysium” lacks in subtlety it certainly makes up for in ambition. In 2154, the Earth has become an overpopulated, over-industrialized cesspool. The rich and powerful, seeking the ultimate escape from the toiling peons, have fled to a massive space station called Elysium, which hangs overhead as a constant reminder to the poor of just how miserable their lives are.
In the dusty slums of Los Angeles, Max de Costa (Matt Damon) toils in a factory while trying to put his prior life of crime behind him. When an industrial accident leaves him with a lethal dose of radiation and five days to live (very convenient), Max decides it's high time he paid a visit to Elysium, where the rich can cure themselves of any ailment due to their resources and technology. Unfortunately, his visit puts him in the crosshairs of Elysium's Secretary General Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her pet psychotic commando, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who want to take over Elysium and run it themselves.
In case the marketing and premise haven't spelled it out, this is one giant allegory for immigration and class disparity. The poor try to fly to Elysium on “undocumented shuttles,” they're hunted by “Homeland Security” and can only use Elysium's miraculous technology if they find a way to fake citizenship. As mentioned, writer-director Neill Blomkamp isn't exactly working with a light touch, but you have to admire his brazenness and his fervor to make a movie about real-world issues. (This isn't entirely surprising; Blomkamp's last outing, “District 9,” was a blatant critique of racism and apartheid.)
Blomkamp puts in a lot of work to flesh out his dystopian vision; the plot doesn't really kick in until about the 20-minute mark, leaving him plenty of time to build out the world with small anecdotes. We see Max being harassed by robotic police on his way to work, struggle with automated bureaucracy and get harangued by his factory boss, all of which help ground the movie. The production design and cinematography are fantastic as well; the clash between the washed-out desert slums and the gleaming, pristine architecture of Elysium vividly illustrates the dichotomy between rich and poor.
What keeps “Elysium” from reaching the elite heights of sci-fi action movies is the action scenes, which are supposed to give the movie an extra jolt. They're all poorly choreographed and have some pretty cheap effects, with too much emphasis on slow-motion at random moments. It's a shock to see such a thing, because “District 9” excelled when it came time to break out the guns and blow stuff up. We know Blomkamp can do better, but he seems to have either lost his touch or run out of resources.
As Max, Damon isn't required to stretch his range much, but he makes Max a very empathetic character, one with tinges of both selfishness and selflessness. (Damon also gets the movie's sharpest sarcastic barbs, especially during a meeting with his robot parole officer.) Foster doesn't have to do much but be an ice queen, but she makes for a capable villainess, so she earns her keep. Copley, who was the overwhelmed protagonist of “District 9,” is a fearsome, beastly presence as Kruger; his wild eyes tell you everything you need to know.
Even with its flaws, “Elysium” is a welcome injection of intelligence and ambition in a movie climate characterized by laziness and repetition. Better to have a movie that fails for trying to do too much than a movie that fails for trying to do too little.