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August 19, 2013

Pandorum. Melancholia*. Prometheus. Oblivion. Elysium. What’s with these mythologically-lugubrious single-single word titles lately? Whether it is a sci-fi trend, a coincidence or a sign of the times, I think it’s worth noting. Anyway, we are here to talk about the one film above that has just hit theaters: Elysium.

elysium poster

Elysium comes to us from writer/director Neill Blomkamp. It arrives four years after Blomkamp’s revelatory 2009 debut; District 9. The quality wrung from District 9’s miniscule budget (estimated at $30 million) and unknown cast surprised everyone. Elysium, is an entirely different story; flaunting an estimated $100 million budget and a pair of Hollywood A-listers (Matt Damon and Jodie Foster).

Without giving anything away, here is a quick primer on the story: Earth’s wealthiest have moved to a space station called Elysium. Everyone else still lives on grimy old Earth. Citizens of Elysium have the technology to heal all ailments and stop the aging process. The many Earthlings in need of such omnipotent medical assistance are not allowed on Elysium and are barred with extreme methods. Earthling Max (Damon) decides he’s not gonna take it anymore and assumes a mission to infiltrate Elysium.

Matt Damon gives a reliably heroic performance as the lead, Max. He seems curiously miscast as a wise-guy felon trying to turn his life around, but it’s not necessarily to the film’s detriment. Suffering from an accident at work, Max needs Elysium’s medical technology to save his life. To get there, he dons an exo-suit that allows him to attain vital data as well as do battle with Elysium’s droid officers. The suit is one of the key elements in the story and easily one of the most memorable. For Max to wear the suit, it must be drilled into his bones – a very nice flourish by Blomkamp.  It’s a plot device, but it’s gruesome and monstrous and lends the anticipation of something terrible every time Max finds himself in a jam.


Jodie Foster, the other big name, plays a nasty politician with zero tolerance for Earthlings intruding on her precious Elysium.  She lends real gravitas to her role even if her futuristic accent doesn’t always play well.

The real gem of the cast is Sharlto Copley, a long-time collaborator of Blomkamp’s. He gave an unforgivable lead performance as Wickus in District 9 and plays Kruger, a fiendish Elysian agent unleashed to stop Max. Copley is an incredible actor and plays this devious Elysian outcast-living-on-Earth, with a ruthless bloodlust. Kruger is the most memorable character and the best single element of the film. He is a contradiction of terms, serving the whims of the futuristic Elysium, yet preferring to do battle with swords, knives and even throwing stars. He is a filthy savage protecting the ideals of the “clean”.

Blomkamp provides very strong direction, even if he seems to take too many cues from his last film. He uses a strong, stylistic approach that swings back and forth between two extremes to great effect. On one end, Blomkamp delivers ultra-slick Ridley Scott-esque sci-fi action, and on the other, he descends into a Cronenbergian sense of biomechanical dread. It’s a thrilling combination and I hope Blomkamp can eventually put it to good use with a story that manages to completely separate itself from District 9.


Does Elysium improve on District 9? No, it does not. It seems unfair to even compare the two even though it’s nearly unavoidable. Both films feature similarly slummy Earth conditions, a distinct South African flavor, and a flair for the kind of grotesquery associated with recent horror films. These are three ingredients that made a delicious stew in District 9, yet only managed to make alphabet soup with Elysium. 

The script clanks along at times like a rusty exo-suit. The politics are not subtle. Most of the characters are uninteresting. Events often fail to play out with the maximum impact, instead taking the easy, Hollywood-ized way out and undermining the story’s power in the process.

I mentioned that the politics are not subtle. Politics don’t always ruin movies but to let them get in the way of the entertainment is unforgivable. Elysium definitely flirts with this line. It is unfortunate that a movie with so much to say takes no real care in how it delivers the message.

Blomkamp is an excellent director and Elysium is ultimately a pretty good movie. There’s nothing wrong with a movie being pretty good. Elysium’s chance to be better than that is torpedoed by an all-too conventional script and some not-so-metaphorical soapboxing. Still, see it for Blomkamp’s spectacle, and see it for Copley’s delicious villainy, but District 9 this is not.

*Admittedly, “melancholia” is not necessarily a mythological word, but boy is it ever super lugubrious.

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