directed by Neil Blomkamp
(Tristar, 2013)

On the surface, the futuristic Elysium looks pretty good. With a great lineup of stars, good special effects and a contemporary issue at its core, it certainly has the potential to be one of those great movies like Blomkamp's previous hit District 9, but the broadness of the theme and the somewhat formulaic construction wear down the edges of what could have been a truly fantastic movie. Still, Elysium has enough authenticity and straight-up action to carry it past its weak narration.

In the year 2041, society has split: there are the haves, living in a paradise that floats above the world, and the have-nots, who lived on a grimy, overpopulated, poverty-stricken Earth that is little more than a huge, crime-ridden ghetto. Matt Damon is ex-con Max, who's trying to go straight as a factory worker making the security robots that guard the lush orbiting sanctuary known as Elysium, which is viciously segregated, vaporizing any unknown/unapproved vehicles and deporting without mercy any stowaways. After being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation due to unsafe working conditions, Max, with five days to live, realizes his only chance of survival is on Elysium. There, the rich have healing devices in the form of medical pods, available only to them, that can heal any illness or injury.

Max agrees to a high-target theft for a computer hacker in exchange for a chance to be smuggled into Elysium. In order to pull off the theft, Max's body is hardwired with molded-to-the-bone battletech, turning him into a sort of Robocop kind of soldier.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), guardian of the upper-class paradise, is embroiled in a political struggle with government leaders over the use of deadly force to keep immigrants out of paradise. Delacourt skirts the issues of unlawful force by employing mercenaries to enforce the rules illegally, including a particularly vicious human shark, Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Delacourt plots a political coup with billionaire CEO John Carlyle (William Fitchner), who plans to reboot the entire satellite, placing everything completely under Delacourt's control. He also happens to be the target from whom Max has to steal data. Carlyle manages to reboot the satellite, which Max then steals in the form of a Johnny Mnemonic-style download directly into his brain, in turn causing Delacourt to sic her killer dog Kruger on him in an effort to recover the stolen data.

This all sounds great but it doesn't quite hold together. The love story angle seems very contrived, there are a lot of too-familiar plot points, and Damon's character doesn't seem to grow or expand very much. Sharlto Copley's Kruger, on the other hand, livens up the screen with his compelling brand of high-octane ferocity as he destroys everything in his path to find Max. His deranged character eats every inch of scenery he's in and it's a delight to watch.

The action is terrific, at first, but as it turns into a near nonstop barrage of violent set pieces it eventually compromises any emotional connection with the theme. The 99 percent vs. 1 percent message, while earnest, does feels heavy-handed and manipulative after a certain point.

On a technical level, though, Elysium scores big. Blomkamp's world is perfectly constructed, grimy and bloody and violent, with startling snatches of beauty in the midst of great despair. It's a world that feels precariously close on the horizon, and perhaps its loyalty to its thematic backbone, if not subtly in its delivery, is the reason it was a box-office hit that snagged an Oscar nomination.

Great but not without flaws, thoughtful and fairly realistic in its depiction of the future, Elysium is a terrific sci-fi action movie and quite admirable, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

review by
Mary Harvey

29 November 2014

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