Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) spends his days working in a factory, building the militarized droids that abuse him, never letting him forget about his past as a car thief. In the sky you can see Elysium, a floating world that houses the rich and powerful, while the impoverished workers like Max are left to toil on a polluted earth, fighting for basic necessities.
Max promised his childhood friend Frey (Alicia Braga) that one day he would take her to Elysium. Today he will make good on that promise. Frey’s daughter is dying of cancer, and only the medical technology on Elysium can save her. Max, too, is dying from radiation poisoning, relying on a power suit to function normally.
As you may have expected from Neill Blomkamp, the talented director behind District 9, Elysium delivers in terms of visuals and style. However, where District 9 was strikingly original, Elysium falls heavily into convention, delivering a steady stream of movie cliches, and unfolding almost exactly as you would expect. That being said, it’s still an entertaining summer blockbuster that delivers the thrills, despite a painfully uneven script.
Calling Elysium’s themes heavy handed would be an understatement. In a way, it almost shoots itself in the foot at times, becoming so cheesy that you almost wonder if Blomkamp is going for a tounge-in-cheek approach. There definitely is some satire here, but I question if the humor is effectively delivered. One scene that featured an evil CEO yelling at his employee for breathing on him may have made me smile, if not for Max dying in the background. The juxtaposition was jarring, and not in a good way. I think the answer is that you’re not supposed to take the movie seriously – except that sometimes you are supposed to take it seriously. Getting a proper gauge on the mood isn’t easy.
In the end, it’s the characters and the emotion surrounding their lives that win out, which is surprising considering how overdone the story is. The tale of an the oppressed people rebelling against a ruling class that controls technology isn’t anything new in science fiction. Every character archetype you can imagine is present here, right down to the sadistic nemesis that serves as Max’s counterpart. They both even wear the same exosuit. And spoiler alert: they will get in a fistfight towards the film’s climax.
Still, somehow even the extremely overdone stuff works, and I think that has a lot to do with the visual style and organic soundtrack. Both the special effects and the score mix into the film perfectly, feeling very much like a natural part of the world onscreen. There’s this gritty sense of realism to the art direction and, despite this being a movie that features robots and floating cities in the sky, my suspension of disbelief remained unfaltered.
Blomkamp knows how to use special effects to drive his themes home. His use of CGI never feels like it exists strictly to create a sense of awe, and none of the effects ever feel out of place. They add to the film instead of dominating it, which is quite an accomplishment considering a growing trend of overuse.
I have no complaints with Elysium aside from the script; it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect something as unique as District 9. But, hey, this movie works. Those heavy-handed themes brought about by the cliché melodrama actually registered with me, likely because they perfectly correlate with the current global sociopolitical climate. In Elysium, the only industry that thrives is authority; the elite in Elysium keep their world afloat on the backs of the poor, who are kept in line by a militarized police force. I think that plays into the fears a lot of us have. If not, at least this setting works for creating a really cool looking movie.