The word “Elysium” calls to mind rolling hills dotted with lush forests, verdant pastures and marble plazas where artists, musicians and classical athletes gather to extoll the glories of human nature. By contrast, the movie of that name has Matt Damon.
I bet that got your attention, but it’s actually a tad unfair, because this Sony/MRC/TriStar blockbuster boomstick was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the guy behind District 9. Blomkamp’s no fool: he kept good ol’ Matt in the action without giving him too much dialogue – that’s where Damon shines, after all.
Elysium, TriStar’s first major release this millennium, is set in 2154, after humanity has drained the planet’s resources. Damon is Max DeCosta, one of the disenfranchised poor eking out a meager existence in Los Angeles. The City of Angels has somehow become dirtier, with no greenery in sight; its starving, sickened inhabitants crammed into third-world shacks and overcrowded, crumbling skyscrapers.
Floating on high over this slum world is the space station Elysium, a glittering pentacle torus in the sky where the rich bask in their privilege untouched by war and disease. Their technology is supported by massive factories staffed by the working poor below. The station is led by President Patel (Faran Tahir) and defended by Jodie Foster’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt. The citizens have access to the best of civilization’s accomplishments through their registered DNA, and those in the dirt below are willing to die to access its comforts.
Damon’s character is among them, having turned from a life of crime in hopes of working his way up the factory ladder and achieving the dream of Elysium. Raised by nuns and dreaming of a better life, DeCosta pays the ultimate price for his hopes when an industrial accident irradiates him. With only five days to live, he moves to call in a big favor and get to Elysium to save his own life. He then teams up with an old friend, an old flame, and a crew of dubious heroes to do battle with Delacourt and her assassin, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
Like District 9, Blomkamp has nailed numerous hot-button issues with this script. In fact, gun control is just about the only thing he skips, given the whole action movie motif. Elysium’s medical facilities can cure anything in seconds, but the poor on Earth are served only by overburdened hospitals; the wealth gap is certainly exaggerated, cops and bureaucrats are actual robots, and as mentioned before the poor are willing to die for a chance to dance where the grass is greener. The middle class is entirely absent, and the only Elysium residents that do a moment’s work are Delacourt and industrialist John Carlyle (William Fichtner). These components are actually pretty well balanced against the action, though, which is a pleasant change from many recent blockbusters.
The plot is straightforward and mildly innovative while trying for an emotional ending without quite getting there. DeCosta actually gets enough backstory to count, tying him in with old flame Frey (Alice Braga) and her adorable dying daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) and driving his aspirations. The villains are ostensibly just people doing their jobs, even if they do enjoy their work a bit too much.
Keen viewers are likely to observe some gaps, scenes that were dropped for the sake of Hollywood’s misguided needs. At a mere 97 minutes, they should probably have been kept in; one hopes for a Director’s Cut sooner rather than later.
Elysium’s effects and cinematography are nice, even if they lean heavily on that damnably ubiquitous shaky cam technique. I think there were new filters on some of those shots, but it’s hard to be sure.
Sci-fi lovers are sure to enjoy the technology, which includes cybernetics, great droids, killer ships, and a gun called a “Chemrail.” I don’t know how a chemical railgun would work, but I sure want to find out. Add the namesake space station is a real beauty, likely to tweak any geek.
Neophyte composer Ryan Amon’s score is remarkable: It’s both seamless and memorable, and rises and falls perfectly with the action. It might actually be the best thing about Elysium.
We all know there’s acting, and then there’s action-movie acting. This is an action movie, and you just can’t expect much, even from Foster; I don’t like it, but it’s an immutable truth. At least Damon wasn’t forced to push his limits. His action foil, agent Kruger, is both under-motivated and under-written, and the remaining cast is pretty much just kind of there. The good news? Nobody stands out as awful.
While it almost seems like an innovative flick, Elysium is really just a grown up version of Astro Boy. The parallels abound; in fact, Elysium is just as predictable as that great kid’s movie, but nowhere near as charming.
In the final analysis, Elysium is worth seeing, and among the best of this summer’s offerings for pure action. Its inertia and conflict are thoroughly engaging, and there’s just enough characterization to satisfy.
Elysium (www.itsbetterupthere.com) opens nationally in wide release today (Aug. 9). For locations and show times in the Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, 97 min. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Emma Tremblay, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner and Diego Luna.
*Photos by Kimberley French and Stephanie Blomkamp courtesy Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.