In some movies, social commentary is hidden between the lines, letting the general movie-going audience be entertained by the surface story while more astute viewers can see the film for what it’s really trying to say.
Elysium is not that kind of movie. Social issues such as financial inequality, immigration and healthcare are right at the forefront of the latest from South African director Neill Blomkamp. But it’s no weighty drama; much like in Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, those issues are part of a futuristic sci-fi action story designed to fit right in with other summer releases.
At its heart is Max (Matt Damon), a man who has grown up on a mid-22nd century Earth that has become so polluted that everyone who can afford to — aka the 1 percent — decamps to a massive space station called Elysium.
Sci-fi elements and accompanying visual effects are the best things about Elysium.
Residents of Elysium, which has its own artificial atmosphere, enjoy all the finer things in life, including machines that magically heal any and all ailments.
Naturally, many on Earth attempt to “cross the border” to gain access to this wonder device. When Max, whose job it is to build robots that provide security against people like him, finds himself with only days to live after an accident, he does everything in his power to make it to Elysium before his time runs out.
Sci-fi elements and accompanying visual effects are the best things about Elysium. Shots of Elysium and the shuttles that travel back and forth from Earth are treated in a matter-of-fact manner, but they still manage to be awe-inspiring. Max, in a weakened state, is outfitted with an exoskeleton that would be really cool if it didn’t involve unimaginable pain.
The action is also fantastic, with Blomkamp dreaming up weaponry that impresses with its power and shocks with its brutality. Max’s main face-to-face enemy is Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a bounty hunter of sorts. Their confrontations make for some great scenes; it’s just too bad there aren’t more of them.
The social issues are not dealt with in a heavy-handed manner, but that’s actually a problem. The ins-and-outs of living on Elysium are mostly a mystery; you just accept that life there is much better and preferable to living on Earth. But because there are few details, it’s hard to build up much enmity toward most of the people living there.
There are proxies like John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who runs Max’s factory with a barely contained disdain, and defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who protects Elysium from illegal immigrants. But they’re portrayed as much more evil than most of Elysium’s residents, leading to questions about whether they’re representative of others on the space station or merely outliers who’ve gained power.
Also given short shrift is a friendship between Max and Frey (Alice Braga). They supposedly have a deep bond stemming from their childhood, but the time devoted to it in relation to the importance it’s given is next to nothing. It's hard to care about a character who's given so little screen time.
Damon, as he’s proved time and again, makes for a wonderful protagonist. He’s an Everyman who’s also extraordinary, a combination that few can pull off like Damon can. His experience as Jason Bourne pays off handsomely, as his action skills are never in question.
Foster is not as successful. Whether it’s her choice of accent or just an underwritten role, she’s never convincing. Copley, on the other hand, is completely frightening. Outfitted with a scruffy beard and metallic body enhancements, he’s the perfect picture of evil in a fractured society.
Elysium is never quite as deep as it would like you to believe it is, but it’s still a solid sci-fi action film that fills the void nicely while we wait for prestige movie season to begin.