Thursday, August 15, 2013

Elysium (Movie Review)

Elysium takes place about 150 years in the future. By this time the earth has become overpopulated and the wealthy have left the planet in favor of an orbiting colony called Elysium, where they can preserve their way of life. The vast majority of the human population remains on earth, which is poverty-stricken and rampant with crime.

Matt Damon plays Max, born and raised on Earth, who leaves behind a life of crime to try to make a legitimate, honest living. Unfortunately, abuse from his superiors ultimately leads to a terrible injury at work. Max must now somehow find a way to Elysium, where he can use the healing units common to every home to restore his health and save his life. But as he pursues this goal, he increasingly realizes that he is not the only one suffering, and that many on earth are in need of the medical aid that is readily available to all citizens of Elysium.

If this sounds like a film with a political agenda, it's because it is a film with a political agenda. Director and writer Neill Blomkamp told a similarly politics-laden tale with his breakout film "District 9." As does his previous effort, Elysium centers on a social issue that provides a springboard for all of the character drama. And also like District 9, Elysium's presentation of the social dilemma in question is a bit oversimplified.

There are probably a number of social issues this movie could draw attention to with its metaphor, but chief among these would have to be free universal medical care, and coming in second, increased taxation of the wealthy, or "redistribution of wealth." The movie is short on clumsy political soapbox dialogue, which is good. However, the clear "black hats" given to the wealthy keeps the metaphor pretty one-sided, despite the fact that the citizens of earth do not universally wear white hats.

In short, Elysium presents a world with huge problems. It's a bad place to live. And solutions to the problem are not easily provided... until the end, when a solution is offered that, while dramatically engaging, is a bit simplistic given the ramifications of the resolution. The story wisely rolls the credits before we have a chance to see all the problems that would naturally spring up from the way the main conflict is "resolved." (I predict that in a sequel, things would soon look even worse before long, though possibly in different ways.)

I'm about as hands-off politically as you can get, though I suppose I lean toward the conservative side of issues more often than not. However, I applaud and affirm the liberal's compassion for the poor, neglected, and abused. It's the solutions they offer I usually find fault with.

The same was true for my experience with Elysium. Blomkamp and cast effectively present a world with suffering that grabbed my heart and fired my compassion, reminding me that, in a lesser but still horrible way, our world is broken and in desperate need of fixing. That said, I wish the presentation of the problem would have been handled with a little more responsibility, better reflecting the complexity of the real-world issues the film attempts to draw attention to. 

I've focused a lot on the message of the film, but it should be noted that apart from the message the film is a great sci-fi experience. After putting away the baggage that Matt Damon's political activism placed in my lap, I was able to engage with his character and the suffering he endures. The surrounding cast was likewise excellent. Jodi Foster was a bit wasted in this film, as her character had great promise to go somewhere interesting by the end, but wasn't allowed to truly evolve in any way.

The visual effects were fantastic, with CG spaceships that were indistinguishable from models to my eye. The beautiful and many times very real-looking landscape of Elysium effectively brought to life images I've dreamed of since playing Halo or Mass Effect. The visual style in general helps to ground the film in a feeling of gritty realism. Dust clouds billow and litter blows around the rusted and worn-out sheds that people call homes. The realistic sets and costumes give credibility to the sci-fi elements like energy shields, robot drones, and energy weapons.

The camera work is also executed creatively a number of times, with quick pans that rotate around characters with artificial smoothness, or slow-motion moments that show off explosive destruction. The destruction of one droid and a man's face come to mind as especially memorable. However, there are a few times when "shaky cam" is overdone, making me wish they would just settle down and let me see what's going on.

As you may have guessed, this film offers plenty of opportunity for worthwhile thought or discussion of moral issues. And despite the politically charged nature of the movie, it does boil down to moral issues in the end. I think a fired up liberal will find inspiration in this film to continue championing the underdog. The hardcore conservative, though, will likely feel frustrated and preached at. I think the rest of us, especially Christians landing in the middle, may feel conflicted. 

The film reflects some sobering realities of our world, especially when we think beyond the continental United States. It makes it easy to remember that yeah, we've got some serious problems that need fixing. Humans are a broken species. And though this movie doesn't offer any useful solutions, it may give us enough pause to consider what role we might play, big or small, in loving those who are suffering in ways that are practical and effective in both the short and long term. Elysium is a great but flawed sci-fi action film with a message that, while somewhat recklessly presented, provides opportunity for worthwhile reflection.

Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout 

Quality: 8.5/10

Relevance: 9.0/10


  1. Great review Paeter. Not a perfect piece of sci-fi, but still a credible one that’s fun and quick when it needs to be.