Review contains minor spoilers.
If I had to have a “lost summer,” then damn am I glad it was this one. The movie I anticipated with the greatest enthusiasm, Star Trek Into Darkness, was less memorable than any given episode of Sherlock. Man of Steel was a cynical bloodbath, a dystopian vision of a Superman who has traded in his courage and empathy for 9/11 porn in eye popping 3-D. This is a summer during which, for a good long while, I thought that the best movie to come out would be Pain and Gain, a Micheal Bay film. These are the bizarre, otherworldly circumstances that allow Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium to aspire to beyond mediocrity.
Let’s briefly talk about Blomkamp. He’s a gifted, up and coming director, the man behind District 9, the South Africa-based film about alien apartheid. District is an incredible movie, and although Elysium fails to live up to its legend, Blomkamp remains without exaggeration one of the last remaining great hopes for the future of cinema operating outside the sequel-reboot cycle. And hey, at least on paper, Elysium sounds great. It’s a movie about income disparity, set 150 years in the future, in which Los Angeles is a cyberpunk gangster’s paradise and the wealthy live on a suburban space station. This premise has tons of potential.
Now, it may sound like I’m building up to a massacre here. I’m not. Elysium is a cool, smart summer sci-fi blockbuster. But, unlike a few other notable films who fit this description (Inception and Looper spring to mind.) Elysium hits a few seriously sour notes that stop the movie cold. Style and dogma take precedence over storytelling and character, and this is where the movie really suffers.
Speaking of a characters… There aren’t any. Well, there are barely any. Matt Damon’s Max (so named because he’s Max-treme! Probably!) is supposedly a clever, gifted young man whose potential has been crushed out of him by poverty. All we’re really given to show us how gifted he is is a flashback of him drawing with crayons and gazing into the sky as a child though, so for the most part we’re forced to take the movie’s word for it. Max works in an evil corporate factory, building the very robots that act as enforcers for the upper class. (I’m serious.) Because of his supervisor’s disregard for the disposable lives of his employees, Max ends up dosed with enough deadly radiation to kill him in five days. The faceless corporates shrug, toss him some pain pills and send him home. One is reminded of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In that book, an underpaid migrant worker falls into a massive beef-grinder, only to be ground up and served to the other proles with the rest of the meat. Elysium is not so subtly telling us that the way we value workers and their rights in 2154 may end up looking a lot like how we valued them in 1906.
Max knows that he only has one chance to survive: He has to get to Elysium, space-colony for the rich and famous, and use their med-bay technology to purge the radiation from his body. This is actually an interesting touch. Max doesn’t initially set out to save the world or get revenge like virtually every other blockbuster hero this summer. He’s a mid-level gangster just trying to save his own skin, keeping half a step ahead of death the way he has all his life. In the course of Max’s misadventures on the way to Elysium we meet a few stock characters that help to advance the plot but do little if anything at all to give the movie depth. FIrst, Max gets a love interest (Alice Braga as Frey) with a sick young daughter who also really could use some of that med-bay technology that everyone is raving about. And that’s really all she is. A love interest, a girl who we are assured Max is close with, who sews up a few of his wounds, who gets captured, who is almost raped, who is saved by Max at the last minute. I defended this sort of treatment of a female protagonist in Django Unchained because A., that film was riffing on old westerns and the damsel in distress archetype was, in that context, useful and B., Django already had plenty going on without fleshing out another of its characters. In the case of Elysium though, a movie with a serious deficit of real characters to begin with, this misuse of Frey seems lazy, and it ultimately harms the film.
The villains are, for the most part, uninspired. Jodi Foster makes a moderately threatening Secretary of Defense for the first two scenes in which she appears. Then we start to wonder what her ultimate motives might be, then she mentions a coup and then, whoops, she’s dead, so that’s over and done with. The other antagonists running Elysium are mostly empty suits. They’re poorly acted, unbelievably written and so unrepentantly slimy that they take you out of the movie. (At one point one of the corporate ubermench commands a member of the working class “not to breathe on him.”) They ought to be portrayed as bastards, granted, but they would be a lot more interesting, and ultimately a lot more threatening, if they were portrayed as human. As walking straw-man arguments against social justice, they only serve to make the film heavy handedly preachy in a way that District 9 never was.
All this leaves much of the villain work to District 9’s Sharlto Copley, who steps into the role of the murderous Krueger brilliantly despite having to contend with the fact that he is one “L” away from having the most hilarious first name in Hollywood. Aside from the premise and some of the slick sci-fi technologies (better experienced on the big screen than described by your humble reviewer) Copley’s performance as a black-ops mercenary tasked with hunting down undocumented immigrants on Elysium is the best part of the film. I haven’t hated a villain like this in a long while.
The only character that goes through a real arc in this movie is Diego Julio, who starts off as a mob boss and tertiary villain and ends up as a revolutionary, the last man standing beside Max at the climax of the film. Come to think of it, in the end Julio feels a lot more three dimensional than Max who is too busy having sword fights on bridges and narrowly preventing rape to break out of his role as the everyman hero. This must be what it would’ve been like if Ron Perlman’s character in Pacific Rim had actually been given something to do.
I’ve focused on characters in this review because that’s really all Elysium is missing. It has a thought provoking premise. It has a lot of talented actors. It has interesting details incorporated into its world building. (French and Spanish as the languages of affluence and poverty, Bush-era buzzwords muttered by Elysium’s military elite, sci-fi weapons and technologies destined to be shamelessly ripped off for years to come.) But compelling characters would have been the glue that made us care, that held it all together. That’s where Elysium fails. Despite being chock full of great action and interesting ideas, it just barely manages to stand with grim dignity beside Pacific Rim and Iron Man 3 as one of the few blockbusters of summer 2013 that actually deserves to be remembered.