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Review: Elysium (2013)

Elysium (2013)

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

Premise: Set in the year 2154 A.D., civilization has collapsed and the people of earth live in squalor while a privileged minority live in comfort on a space station known as Elysium. When an ex-con (Matt Damon) suffers lethal radiation poisoning, he attempts to break into Elysium in order to get lifesaving medical treatment.

What Works: Elysium is a fast-paced science fiction adventure and the movie is successful as a piece of popcorn entertainment. Although the film has the trappings of a superhero movie, the story of Elysium is built around a populist protagonist with a very accessible problem: he just wants to preserve his life with a simple medical procedure. That makes this character very different from the sometimes immortal and frequently unflappable heroes of most of Hollywood’s tent pole productions. The main character does not start out trying to save the world but the stakes of his adventure gradually open up to include the fate of his friends and eventually the future of Earth’s underclass citizenry and that escalation is more satisfying than if the film began with a worldly pursuit. The lead role of Elysium is played by Matt Damon and although the part is underwritten Damon is a likable on-screen presence and his amiability mostly substitutes for in-depth characterization. The film also includes an enjoyable supporting performance by Sharlto Copley as an agent of the oppressive establishment. Copley looks like a futuristic version of the savages of The Hills Have Eyes and he adds a lot of villainous energy to the movie. As a popcorn adventure, Elysium is very entertaining. The film is very well paced, not overlong like so many recent science fiction and fantasy movies like The Hobbit and The Lone Ranger, while also not suffering from incomprehensibly fast editing as seen in Star Trek Into Darkness. The action scenes are very well executed and they maintain a sense of mass, gravity, and scale that keeps them believable. Director Neill Blomkamp’s previous film was District 9 and like that movie Elysium has terrific production design. The sets, costumes, and props have a very lived-in look, similar to the original Star Wars, and the world of the movie is immersive and convincing. Even shots that must have been accomplished with digital effects do not have the plastic, video game look usually associated with computer generated imagery. The climactic fights and chases are executed with a degree of restraint that helps the film considerably. Elysium‘s credible style makes the action and the story involving instead of exhausting. That keeps the movie entertaining and it is a satisfying action picture.

What Doesn’t: Like District 9, the concept and story of Elysium is intended as a political allegory. In this case the movie is about massive inequalities in wealth and the struggle of the underclass against political and economic elites. There is nothing wrong with a movie having a political agenda. In fact there are many great movies intended as political statements from courtroom dramas like Inherit the Wind to science fiction titles such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. But the problem with the political allegory of Elysium is that it is so oversimplified. What movies like Inherit the Wind and the original Planet of Apes series recognized was a greater complexity to the issues that they addressed and they had multidimensional characters who dramatized that complexity. The political scenario of Elysium is simple and all of its characters are exactly who they appear to be and nothing more. No one really changes in a meaningful way between the beginning and the ending of this film and the solution to the global conflict is woefully simplistic.

Bottom Line: Elysium is very well produced with impressive visuals and some interesting ideas. It comes up short as a political statement but the fact that its filmmakers manage to include some provocative content is itself impressive and the movie is an entertaining sci-fi action adventure.

Episode: #452 (August 18, 2013)