Thursday, August 22, 2013


Elysium is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who previously wrote and directed District 9, a dystopian science fiction movie with heavy-handed themes relating to class and race. Elysium is familiar ground for anyone who has seen District 9. The details and scenery are vastly different, but the themes are the same, as are the flaws.

Elysium is set in a future where the rich have built themselves a space station to separate themselves from the riff-raff who are forced to live in squalor on an overpopulated and overexploited Earth. The sets that realize this world are very well done. Los Angeles' dusty misery contrasts nicely with Elysium's green suburbia. None of the space travel effects are convincing, but the airships are nicely mechanical, and I give credit to the filmmakers for giving us a convincingly realistic visual setting.

As with District 9, unfortunately, Elysium's weakness is its writing. The plot is shallow at best. The characters are rarely more than caricatures, many of them laughably so. Blomkamp clearly has a compelling vision and ideas in regard to setting and theme, but does not know how to turn them into a coherent narrative with believable characters.

Matt Damon actually isn't bad in the lead role. His character has an interesting backstory, and his decisions after the inciting incident are fairly reasonable. The encounter with the police and the incident in the factory, though, are stupid to ludicrous. If the police are known to be that brutal, and apparently they are, then his character has no motivation to mouth off to them. The factory scene is worse. Not only should Damon's character not be stupid enough to get into that situation, but the manager who ordered him into it should not have been stupid enough to do so. There are basic logic flaws with everyone's decision-making processes throughout that scene that are indicative of Blomkamp's shortsightedness.

The two main villains have no depth at all. Jodi Foster's character exists to exude privilege, and to embody the idea that the rich want to oppress everyone who isn't rich. Certainly people like that do exist in real life, though probably not quite so one-dimensionally. The problem is that in the real world, the rationale of such people is that the finite number of resources currently available spread evenly across the population of the world would make everyone poor. Leaving aside the question of whether that is true in our world, we are given to understand that it is not true in the world of Elysium, and that is a problem. Instead of a group of privileged people who don't want to share their resources because there aren't enough to go around, the people of Elysium are apparently just jerks.

The other villain is even worse. Where Jodie Foster's character has a somewhat understandable selfish motivation, Sharlto Copley's character is just evil for the sake of being evil. Maybe Blomkamp has a backstory which explains who Kruger is and how he ended up in the position we find him in, but no such explanation is in evidence. Narratively, he exists purely as a physical counterpoint to Damon's character. Even his introduction makes no kind of sense. How is it a good idea to intercept shuttles which are trying to reach Elysium from Earth by using missiles launched from Earth? Why not use missiles fired from Elysium, or just intercept the shuttle as it lands? Kruger's way has a non-zero chance of blowing a hole in Elysium, which is just stupid.

My last complaint about Elysium, though not the least, is its use of shakycam, which was frequent and gratuitous. Large parts of the film were almost unwatchable, and I left the theater with a headache. I understand wanting to portray a gritty, realistic feel, but when the camera is shaking so hard that I can't even focus on the picture, and the only thing happening on screen is a guy walking down the street, things have gone way too far.

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