In the year 2154, the Earth has become such a polluted dump that the wealthiest citizens have located to an orbital space habitat called Elysium. Elysium is beautiful, clean and every home has a medical bay that will cure anything that ails you. Plus, you have one helluva view. However, if you're one of the regular folks, you're stuck on Earth living in a shanty town and barely surviving. There is where we find Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), an ex-con struggling to keep a job a local robot factory.
After an accident at work, Max is blasted with a lethal dose of radiation and is given just five days to live. Getting to Elysium is the only way he'll survive. Desperate for a way to get there, he makes a deal with another criminal rob a wealthy businessman (William Fichtner). They fit him with a powerful exoskeleton, as well as some brain doohickey, and off he goes. Max ends up in the possession of something extremely valuable that's wanted by not only his boss, but Elysium's Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster). She dispatches a sleeper agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), to bring him in.
Elysium has a great pace and that's due in large part to the fact that it wastes no time in getting the main quest going. Within the first few minutes you learn all the backstory you need to know about Elysium and Max through a simple series of images, lines of text and flashbacks. No painful or clunky narration or exposition needed. When Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max's, appears you already understand their relationship and what Frey means to him. The story itself it fairly straightforward and easy to follow.
Much like Neill Blomkamp's District 9, Elysium has parallels to modern issues like immigration, class warfare and healthcare. I didn't find Elysium to be as heavy handed as District 9 or found it to be preachy. You don't see anyone lamenting their situation, or blaming/cursing the upper class for it. Elysium subtly weaves these thoughts into the story, and it's much smarter than what we usually get during the summer, especially for something that's so effects-laden. An early attempt to break into Elysium feels like a high-tech attempt to cross the border. However, when you later realize what city they're in and consider the ethnicity of many of the people, that's the one part that seemed a little too obvious.
Unlike another science fiction film this summer, the technology seemed feasible and consistent for the setting. If this only took place 40-50 years in the future, it would have seemed a little too implausible. The effects are fantastic, whether you're looking at scenic shots of Earth or Elysium, the various robots in the world, or ships flying around. This is one of the best looking films of the year. Blomkamp again showed he has a flair for inventive and graphic ways of killing people. If he ever made a sci-fi version of a Saw film, then I'd think we'd be in for some true mayhem.
I did find a few issues with the plot though. Before I start, I understand without some of these things there'd be no story, but it always strikes me odd when a movie that's otherwise smart misses things to me that would seem obvious. Like when Max gets trapped and hit with all that radiation, the system detects there's a biological signature present, but there was no failsafe to turn it off, or not activate at all once knowing he's in there. That seemed like an obvious safety feature that was missing, but they could have been making a point about workplace safety in sweatshop or low-income/third-world environments.
I understand the point the film was making about healthcare, but if all you need to do is lay in one of these machines and it fixes everything, what's the issue with not having them on Earth? It's not like you ever see money exchange hands on Elysium. Why can't they help? You'll see something at the end that really made this point stick out to me.
While the surface shots of Earth show a littered, run down landscape, orbital shots didn't show much damage. I might have believed how polluted the Earth was if I had seen less blue, or maybe craters showing that there'd been war or some kind of disaster. With the kind of technology that was available, they didn't have anything that would have been able to clean up the planet?
Perhaps I'm projecting my own idealized, Star Trek vision of the future on Elysium. I'd like to believe that when we arrive at this kind of technology in the future, that it will be used for the betterment of all mankind, not just the rich.
There were a few weird character decisions as well. Jodie Foster spoke with a weird accent that didn't seem to belong to any particular nationality. It wasn't as bad as the accent used in After Earth or Queen Amidala from Episode I, but it was a little distracting because there wasn't a real need for it. Plus, I swore in the opening scene she spoke with her normal voice, and then it changed in a later scene. On a side note, Foster can still rock the short haircut with the best of them, and still has one the best set of calves in Hollywood (I have a thing for calves). Speaking of accents, while Sharlto Copley is from South Africa, his accent was also a little distracting, all things considered. A few times I found him difficult to understand. His performance was delightfully nutty though, and a good contrast to Matt Damon's more muted performance. I found it funny despite lack of finances, Max still had plenty of tattoos. He was an ex-con though, so maybe they were prison tattoos. You also see a lot of facial branding or 'white tattoos' on the wealthier folks, but it's never really expounded upon.
Overall, Elysium is well acted and there are no weak performances, but it's really not the focus of the film. There aren't a lot of character moments, and outside of a scene or two I never felt much emotionally.
Lastly, I was really irritated in the camera work in parts. Once again, there's too much shaky camera. Even in some of the earlier flashback scenes of Max this is used and simply unnecessary. When we reach the climactic fight, it suffers from dizzying tight shots, quick cuts and camera movements that make it extremely difficult to tell what was going on. This is really becoming a plague on movies, and I'm disappointed that Blomkamp went this direction, especially when I don't recall any this at all in District 9.
Oh, and as always MATT DAMON!
Despite it's flaws, Elysium is still a smart, thought-provoking and highly entertaining sci-fi film. It's easily one of the best looking films of 2013. While it's a bit of a step down from District 9, it still cements Neil Blomkamp as one of the top sci-fi filmmakers out there. Don't hesitate to check it out.
3.5 (out of 5)