Elysium (2013)

Final Rating: 7.4/10 

Neill Blomkamp can be considered a science fiction visionary for some even before this year, and that assessment is based off of one movie: The stellar District 9. This movie that combined mockumentary with science fiction and action was daring. The movie starts off as a fake documentary about the alien life that live in the ghettos in South Africa, and the movie changes instantly when the main character digs too deep. Suddenly, the movie turns its back on its own character, transforming into a thriller where the very species being scrutinized by the biased documentary ended up being closer to the main character than his own kind. District 9 was a clever statement on the state of the world today and its possible dismal future.

Blomkamp tends to this idea again with his new film Elysium. While he tries to warn us about the future again with this film, he does so not as gracefully. If District 9 was a cinematic representation of a time traveler’s cries, Elysium is that jerk off higher up that barks in your ear at school and then tries to seem popular by handing out lollipops. Okay, the film may not be that demanding, but it does feel a lot more preachy. Sadly, it’s difficult not to feel preachy with such a film. A future where the rich live in an Utopia and the poor live on an abandoned and dismal Earth does instantly beg to be learned from. District 9 eased into the evils of humanity slowly and without such a forceful hand. Elysium kind of just dives into the fact that, hey, many people suck, and the world needs to know it.

One way that this works is through Matt Damon’s surprisingly heartfelt performance. If anything, I’d have expected most of the teaching to have come from him. Instead, we have a likable lead who seems as curious as he does bold. His emotional reactions are so finely tuned with each scenario, that you cannot help but feel touched by even the most unattainable scenes. In a world that’s so heavily symbolic of the world we live in now, where each portion is as over the top as it is beautiful, Damon’s wide eyed performance is what helps bring everything back down to a relatable state.

While it isn’t unusual for movies to really hyperbolize its imagery in science fiction (Looper, for instance, did just that and it worked really well), Elysium makes these worlds rather ugly, including the title space station of promise. I mean, who wants to go to this world when the 1% live there? We’re made to hate the 1% are we not? District 9 had aliens that came to Earth and were overpowered by humanity. It had people dabbling in the other species, and criminals that worked for both sides. It had gang issues, a comparison to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and even metaphors of labor issues. Elysium doesn’t seem nearly as multi-textual. It just feels like good versus evil, despite the fact that it clearly doesn’t try to be that shallow.

The movie is partially carried by its action and spectacular use of special effects. While these scenes don’t feel nearly as deserved and warranted as they did in District 9, they do work well and are exciting. There are some clever components in the mechanics of the world Blomkamp has created, and they are put to great use within every scene, especially the exciting ones. As an action movie, Elysium works rather well, and if that was your main concern within this movie, and if you are wanting to see it more for Matt Damon more than you are for Neill Blomkamp, then you will not be disappointed as the ride is a good one. The climactic ending, one that promises a complete shattering of your nerves, is worth the price of admission alone. I am so glad that Blomkamp stuck to his original vision, even if a lot of the film is overbearing with its message, rather than give in to the usual Hollywood norm.

However, for those expecting a surprisingly masterful movie that deceptively works its way up as being a contender for one of the best movies of the year like District 9 did (seriously, did you expect something that spectacular with the trailers?), you may not get it. Elysium is still a good movie, but it could have been a great one. It has a great concept and a brilliant vision. It just needed more work and fine tuning to get to where it wanted to go. District 9 worked so well because it somehow felt so close to home. Elysium took a world wide issue and inflated it to be even out of this world, and the lack of subtlety explodes just as much as the machines do. It is still a film worth watching, and if you don’t pump up your expectations too highly, you may get a lot from this film. It is still a promising step in Blomkamp’s career as a director as a lot of the movie does work. It just didn’t work as well as I had hoped, but perhaps it will for others.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.