To criticize or altogether avoid Elysium for its extremely political leanings is to miss the most exhilarating bit of the whole film, which is the point about two-thirds of the way in at which it sets its many social allegories aside to just concentrate on being this decade’s first real spiritual successor to Total Recall. It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, but it’s always far more interesting to watch a movie bite off a lot more than it can sometimes chew than a tighter, more mediocre affair. And for a summer movie, and given the pressure on this one as both a summer movie with distinct politics on its sleeve and as the follow-up to that other sci-fi movie director Neill Blomkamp made that was more or less universally adored, Elysium sticks the landing a lot more often than it doesn’t.
In 2154, Earth looks a lot like a cross between the futuristic hellholes of Wall-Eand the underrated Dredd. Earth’s one-percenters have headed for the greenest pasture imaginable, a ring-shaped synthetic planet called Elysium that sits between Earth and the moon and offers things like beds that can instantly cure any illness and a distinct lack of non-Caucasian citizens. (Brief aside: Blomkamp seems to be hell-bent on working all his plans for the aborted Halomovie into one project or another, doesn’t he?) Meanwhile, those still living on Earth are impoverished, performing the most thankless forms of manual labor to get by if they don’t turn into criminals along the way. Max (Matt Damon) is the face of the proletariat here, an ex-con who loses his job after being exposed to lethal doses of radiation. Through an underground rebel network, Max finds a way to leave Earth and have one of those nice beds fix him up. A wrench is thrown in when his brain is pumped full of enough program information that he could “open the borders to everyone” on Earth, which sets him afoul of both Elysium’s head of security Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and Kruger, a maniacal hired gun played by Sharlto Copley in a wonderfully inexplicable turn.
Also involved are Max’s childhood love interest (Alice Braga), to whom he once promised a better life on Elysium, her child with late-stage leukemia, and the fact that Kruger is the serious-faced equivalent of Will Ferrell’s fezzed nemesis inAustin Powers. Elysium is rooted in the simple filmic tradition of the everyday, working-class man trying to make a better life for himself in a world that doesn’t care, but adds the wrinkle of what would happen if, essentially, everybody was treated like an illegal immigrant, all the time. You’ve probably figured out by now that Elysium isn’t particularly concerned with subtlety, and from time to time the film serves less as allegory and more as a bludgeon. The film works best when it has horrifying moments like an impassive, robotic parole officer silencing Max, or another bot offering him pills and little else right after his nuclear incident. It’s less effective when Elysium as a planet has “Homeland Security” ships hunt down border-crossing illegals or Earth citizens talking about how the healing beds “should be available to all of us.”
To return to the opening observation of this review, though, there’s a moment when Elysium distinctly takes a turn for the better, which is to say that it becomes an homage to both Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg. Though it’s hard to call two consecutive films made four years apart the beginnings of a director’s stylistic trends, Blomkamp clearly enjoys body violence, in particular the ways in which the body can be pushed to its extremes and even beyond the limitations of the human form. In District 9 he experimented with a human transitioning into a new species, and here Damon is fused (grotesquely so) with a metal exoskeleton that allows for him to remain violently physical even with his condition. It’s an inherently fascinating thing, and also repulsive, but in that eminently watchable, early Peter Jackson sort of way.
The biggest issue with Elysium’s endgame, oddly enough, proves to be its insistence on returning to the moralizing on which it’s built. By the time human-mech warfare has happened and the bodies have piled up a’plenty, there’s not a lot left for the film to do, so it resorts to replaying earlier moments, assuming the audience can’t recall planted seeds that weren’t exactly understated in the first place. And for all the geeky glory of the film’s third act, Elysium ends up feeling just a tad slight, summing up its thesis as “the grass is always greener” even as the film preceding it still has so much more to say. But for the nitpicking you could do with the film, Elysium is still a good-to-occasionally-great piece of summer entertainment, a movie with a brain and a conscience that also has zero issues showing in detail what a robot looks like when it’s being ripped apart by bullets in slow motion.