South African Director Neill Blomkamp shot to fame with the awesome 'District 9' in 2009 - an alien movie that was really an allegory to the South African Apartheid. With unknown actors and a pretty small budget, Blomkamp shot a highly original, dystopic sci-fi thriller full of funny jokes, blistering action and powerful social commentary. Fast forward to 2013, and Blomkamp has made another dsytopic sci-fi thriller packed with jokes and incredible action, but with four times the budget and about half the political message.
In 'District 9', large shrimp like aliens arrive in Johannesburg and are locked in slum-internment camps and treated as second class citizens by South Africans. It's a powerful polemic on racial segregation and discrimination, and you left the movie theater thinking about what it must have been like for black South Africans under an oppressive white government. After Elysium, you're not quite sure what you have seen given the message gets lost in a sea of special effects and bad script writing.
Set in 2154, the protagonist Max (Matt Damon) lives on poverty stricken earth where society is run by robots and access to health care is limited. A victim of a horrific radio active work accident, Max has to get to 'Elysium' - a space settlement set up by massively wealthy humans where there are no diseases and no poverty. To get there, Max has to steal some classified information that ends up making him the center of a battle for Elysium itself. It's not a complicated plot, and the reference to the ills of capitalism is apparent early on. Humans on earth are exploited by giant corporations and live a day to day existence doing manual labor for giant corporations. There is massive overpopulation, the environment is in tatters, and the police have been replaced by ruthless robots that harass people on a regular basis.
Blomkamp's portrayal of life on earth isn't unimaginable, and if our economic system is left unchecked, probably quite realistic. Set in Los Angeles, life for Americans looks very much like it does for much of the developing world (bar the police robots, space settlement, futuristic weapons etc). The dusty roads, shacks for housing, street kids hustling for money and general feeling of desperation is done very well, and early on, the comparison with 'Elysium' is quite affecting. Perched just outside earth's atmosphere, the settlement is a pristine Beverly Hills-esque structure filled with beautiful people who don't get sick, live in mansions and speak French (while those on Earth speak mostly Spanish). As he did in 'District 9', Blompkamp expertly helps the audience suspend their disbelief in the new world he has created, using humor to ease them in and quick cuts to keep the plot coherent. If there are consistency holes you don't really notice them as it moves along at such a cracking pace that you don't have much of a choice other than to sit back and let the drama unfold.
As you begin to understand what is at stake, it all comes a bit unstuck as 'Elysium' turns into yet another 'one man saves the world' action movie that treats characterization and dialogue as an afterthought, and plot as an inconvenience. It's great fun and the special effects are awesome, but it's just all a bit silly. You never really care too much about the lead characters - Max or his love interest, Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood sweetheart who coincidentally has a sick daughter she must get to Elysium in about the exact time frame Max has to to.
Jodie Foster plays Secretary of Defense Delacourt, the evil corporate overlord on Elysium who is determined not to let filthy earthlings onto Elysium, and while she does a great job of playing a cold hearted, french speaking sociopath, there's barely any context for her character given there's almost no attention paid to life on Elysium, how she got there and what her background is. Foster plays a baddie you don't really care about either - Delacourt is clearly not a nice person, but there aren't enough interactions to build up enough hatred of her to want to see Max's character defeat her.
Agent Kruger, a South African mercenary used by Delacourt to kill off anyone trying to get Elysium is the only character in the movie that inspires any real emotion. Played by 'District 9' star Sharlto Copley, Kruger is a fantastic, over the top bad guy who will do anything to destroy Max. He's featured heavily in the movie, and rightly so given the other characters are so one-dimensional.
As you follow Max on his journey to Elysium, it almost looks like the editors got the footage, noticed there was a problem, and told the directors to go back and shoot some extra scenes to make it more compelling. There are flash backs to Max's childhood in a orphanage where the nuns tell him he is 'special' and he scribbles love notes on Frey's hand, slightly out of place bromance scenes between Max and his criminal buddies helping him get to Elysium, and a sickly sweet interaction between Max and Frey's daughter who tells him a parable about a hippo wanting friend (ie. take me to Elysium, please), - all of which are annoyingly blatant plot devices stuck in to try and make you invested in the characters. They don't work, and what we're left with is a promising thriller that gets lost in the typical formula used for summer block buster movies. It's unclear whether this is Blomkamp's fault as he probably had to make some concessions to get his shot at directing a mega budget Hollywood extravaganza, but it is definitely a bit of a let down. It's probably worth a trip to the theater for though - Blomkamp's directing style is still original enough to separate it from the likes of 'Fast and Furious 6' and 'Superman', and unlike so many other futuristic movies out there, his use of CGI adds to the dystopian feel rather than detracts.
Ultimately though, the film had the potential to deliver a powerful political message, but it sacrificed it for massive explosions and a half baked romance plot that had about as much sizzle as a 50 year old marriage. The time is ripe for a brave director to take on serious socio economic issues, and with the right touch, it could really do some good. Global capitalism is causing the majority of people on earth considerable distress and we're in dire need of someone who can articulate that story to a mass audience. For a moment, 'Elysium' looked like it could be that film, but chose to cash out and play along with the very system it was attempting to critique.