If there be an ELYSIUM on Earth, it ain’t this (movie review)
I just got Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium from the library, and I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it, since it wouldn’t have been worth it. Blomkamp’s District 9 was a very imaginative and powerful SF allegory, albeit overly violent for my tastes, so it’s startling how poor a job he did with his followup. Elysium is a clumsy, heavy-handed allegory about the one percent and the hoarding of health care, trying to be about something but ultimately being about little more than over-the-top, lowbrow violence.
Matt Damon is reasonably sympathetic as Max, a reformed felon trying to get by in the horrific poverty on Earth while the wealthy elites live in paradise on the Stanford torus space habitat Elysium, where Sufficiently Advanced Technology medical beds can instantly “re-atomize” anyone back to perfect health. When an industrial accident gives him a lethal dose of radiation, he hooks up with a former criminal colleague who runs a rather ill-considered operation to smuggle “illegals” up to Elysium to steal medical care, and makes a deal to steal personal data from an Elysian’s brain in order to make megabucks. But his target just happens to have the key to taking over all of Elysium, because he’s working for the evil government official Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who plans a coup to take over the habitat, and who sends her ruthless mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down. Oh, and there’s Max’s token love interest, childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose daughter is coincidentally terminally ill and could use a trip to Elysium herself.
But although Max gives the story a reasonably strong center, none of the other characters have much substance. Delacourt and Kruger have little motivation beyond being the designated villains, and many of their actions make little sense. Particularly, in the third act, Kruger suddenly decides he wants to take the data in Max’s head so he can personally rule Elysium — and nothing in this thuggish mercenary’s established character has provided any precedent for the idea that he has ambitions of conquest on that scale. And at the same time, Delacourt, who has had clear political ambitions and makes more sense in that role, is unceremoniously tossed aside for reasons I have trouble fathoming — unless it’s simply the fact that she lacked a Y chromosome. This is a very guy-focused action film, like something out of the ’80s, with few female characters, and Frey is basically just there to fill the traditional damsel role. The film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test unless you count a single “No” from Delacourt to Frey as a conversation. Meanwhile, Foster’s performance is strident and awkward, partly due to the French (?) accent she employs, but largely because of the one-dimensional characterization she’s saddled with.
Elysium itself is pretty, thanks to Syd Mead’s conceptual designs, but the physics in the film are atrocious. Heck, not just its physics, its sense of scale. Elysium’s curvature is pronounced enough that it can’t be more than a few kilometers in diameter, and yet it’s depicted as being so immense that its disk can be clearly discerned from the surface of Earth at daytime — and in one shot it’s even shown rising from behind the Earth’s horizon in a shot that would require it to be probably a couple of thousand kilometers across. It’s somehow able to hold in an atmosphere just with rotational gravity alone, with the habitat sections open to space on top — which would not work on that small a scale, since an air column less than a kilometer deep wouldn’t have remotely enough weight. Not to mention the lack of radiation protection. Also, Elysium seems to be keeping permanent station over Los Angeles, which isn’t possible since LA isn’t at the equator. And in some shots, Elysium looks far enough from Earth to be in geosynchronous orbit (if you assume it’s immensely larger than it appears in closeups), while in others, particularly the shots of shuttles traveling up to it from Earth, it seems vastly closer. Oh, and the shuttles thrust continuously in a straight line directly for Elysium, which is not even remotely how orbital maneuvering works.
The physics of explosions in the action scenes are pretty inept too, like a grenade going off in an enclosed space and only injuring the guy closest to it (Kruger), while everyone else is unharmed and even Kruger suffers no brain damage; realistically, they’d all have been killed by the concussive shock propagating in that enclosed space and Kruger’s brain would’ve been jelly. Even by the fanciful standards of Hollywood explosion physics, that one’s hard to swallow. Oh, and when the magic medbed rebuilds Kruger’s face post-explosion, it comes complete with a full beard! Couldn’t they at least have bothered to have Copley shave for the final act?
There was one bit that seemed like a mild concession to good physics, since in the climactic battle in some kind of huge industrial underbelly of Elysium, there was a wind continuously blowing through in one direction, a nice nod to the Coriolis effect resulting from the habitat’s rotation. But the way we knew the wind was there was because it was blowing cherry blossom petals around. Okay, a climactic battle accompanied by blowing cherry blossom petals is a nice stylistic touch, very samurai-movie-ish — but in the middle of a gigantic industrial complex? Granted, that’s part of the established aesthetic of Elysium, plants growing all over everything, and that’s fine in residential or governmental sectors. But it seems like a bad idea to have petals blowing about down below and getting into the vital machinery.
The ending is as overly simplistic as the rest; the heroes supposedly bring the system down and restore justice and health care for all, but it’s pretty clearly a temporary victory at best, and will probably bring even harsher crackdowns once the Elysian authorities reimpose control. After all, the big change is brought about only through a computer hack, not by changing anyone’s minds, so the elites wouldn’t just accept it. I suppose it could work as an ending if you interpret it as a token victory, a gesture of defiance and a statement that needed to be made; but it’s unclear whether the film is treating it that way or just expecting us to assume it’s a permanent solution. And the rest of the film hasn’t given me any reason to expect that kind of nuance or complexity. It’s all really very big, dumb, and heavyhanded.
All in all, a very unsatisfying movie, considering the talent involved. So much less than it could’ve been.