Big Budget, Small Story: A Review of ELYSIUM

There were few films that I was as anxious to see this summer as Neill Blomkamp‘s Elysium. Richard and I loved Blomkamp’s breakout film, District 9, and wrote about it extensively here at Pop Theology. I’m disappointed to say, that in my opinion, Elysium is a less-than-stellar sophomore outing. In this post, I’ll talk about my frustrations with the film. In a subsequent post, Richard will give both his own reactions to the film and his responses to the conservative backlash to it. Read on for more.

In Elysium, it is the late 21st century, and humanity has just about ruined planet earth. It’s overpopulated, diseased, and polluted. Los Angeles looks like a giant favela with rotting skyscrapers. If you’re wealthy, you’re in luck. You can make the move to Elysium, a floating paradise about a 19-minute spaceship ride from Earth. Elysium is everything Earth no longer is: beautiful, peaceful, clean, and healthy. Diseases that plague citizens on Earth can be cured in seconds on Elysium.

All hope is not lost for the poor, huddled masses on earth because, for the right price, rebel groups transport illegal immigrants from Earth to Elysium (many of whom simply seek emergency medical care), if they can get past the missile defense system and armed super drone soldiers. Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-con trying to live a straight life on Earth. He works in a factory that makes drones, and, when something goes wrong with the machinery, he is exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. With five days to live, he asks Spider (Wagner Moura), a former partner-in-crime, for help. The two make a deal: if Max will extract classified information from the Elysium security administrator visiting Earth, Spider will transport him to Elysium to cure his radiation poisoning. In the process, Spider and his crew outfit Max with an exoskeleton that strengthens him for the confrontations that await him, most notably with Elysium’s secret super-agent on Earth, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
Blomkamp clearly has the gift for sound and fury, even if some of it was mishandled in post. Like many of this summer’s blockbusters, Elysium suffers from sound mixing that fails to balance the spectacular explosions with dialogue (it is frequently difficult to understand what Kruger is saying). On the other hand, the fight sequences are intense and boast some impressive cinematography and special effects. Few filmmakers create such disturbing dystopias like Blomkamp manages to do, a feature of his films, as Richard will point out, that has real-world inspiration. Unfortunately, the attention to story, here, does not match the attention to the technical aspects of the film.
As a huge fan of District 9, I had high hopes (perhaps too high) for ElysiumDistrict 9 did such an effective job of drawing viewers, emotionally, into the story, which certainly impacted reactions to the special effects. To put it bluntly, Blomkamp followed the Aristotelian model for dramatic narrative in District 9, privileging plot over all else and using sophisticated spectacle to advance it. With Elysium, Blomkamp inverts that model and begins with spectacle, which sets the film on a downward spiral. I never felt invested or drawn into Max’s situation because the plot was so thin. At the same time, it feels like Blomkamp just expects us to take the unjust duality between Earth and Elysium for granted, which might explain the responses to the film that Richard will engage in a subsequent post.
Of course, there is potential here to discuss Elysium as a Christian allegory as some viewers have no doubt done. Max obtains the information that Scorpion wants, information that will unlock and reboot the security system that runs Elysium. Whoever acquires this information holds the key to give all “earthlings” access to Elysium and its inherent benefits. But if Max gives up this information, or puts it into practice so to speak, it will kill him (a key fact that is not elaborated upon in the film). SPOILER: Max does sacrifice himself for the rest of Earth’s inhabitants and, in doing so, re-establishes their identities as residents of Elysium, which one might also view as a sort of heaven. END SPOILER Of course the problem with this pop-culture savior and where it diverges from the work of Jesus, for example, is Max’s embrace of a violent path to enact that salvation.
In my review of Fruitvale Station, I referenced the industry panic over several high-profile blockbuster flops. I don’t think Elysium will be one of those, but critics’ and audience’s less-than-enthusiastic reactions to it, especially when compared to the success of District 9, are telling. This is, perhaps, just the latest instance of a promising storyteller being hamstrung by a bloated budget.
Elysium (109 mins.) is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout and is in theaters everywhere.