Elysium stands as an excellent example how to fashion a brilliant setting welded to a political statement and then largely waste the effort. While Neill Blomkamp succeeded in social commentary via sci-fi in his previous outing, Distrinct 9, his new movie Elysium failed to convince me that this splendid society of economic inequality was created for something more than furistic gunshots and exo-suit powered fist fights.
The story takes place in 2154. Matt Damon is the Earth-bound Max, a man with a criminal past just trying to make his way on a planet that has long since been abandoned by the wealthy elite. This patrician class has fled the desolate and ruined surface to a luxurious man-made habitat satellite in the sky called Elysium. When he finds himself with only a few days to live, he makes it his desperate mission to travel to Elysium where his solution awaits.
With Jodie Foster playing homeland security chief for the satellite promised land, the two soon find themselves at odds. Max battles an agent in her employ, Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Kruger is amoral, lives for combat, and has a terribly confusing accent. And of course, he has a major case of JWD (Just Won’t Die).
This conflict steals the show, but not for the better. The brutality of their back-and-forth devours the intended satirical effect of the movie. I was left longing for more exposition about the fascinating state of Elysium, or the day-to-day toils of those down on the surface of Earth. Instead, I got explosions, guns, and fistfights. These could have been lifted from any number of movies you’ve seen before. For example, within the whole fascinating world of Elysium, Blomkamp chose to put a protracted ten minute fight seen on a barren patch of dirt. Not only are the fights nothing special, they aren’t even performed on the proper stage.
With a premise as promising as Elysium’s, every punch thrown and shot fired felt like another wasted opportunity. It seems to me like Blomkamp might have taken the wrong lesson from his previous movie, District 9, ascribing its success to the action-packed bits at the end. What made that movie splendid was its attention to world-building and the characters that lived there. On the other hand, Elysium teases a dystopian future with depth to spare, yet barely dips a toe in the pool and fails to deliver characters that can carry the story. Perhaps next time Blomkamp ventures back into the realm of bleak sci-fi as social commentary, he’ll give his viewers a bit more credit.