ELYSIUM is a real solid sci-fi picture, and different from the ones we usually see these days. The story is pretty simple: Max (Matt Damon), a hard-working ex-con in the shitty world of 2154, gets fucked over by an easily preventable industrial accident. It’s gonna kill him in 5 days but he knows if he was only on Elysium, the space station where all the rich people live after abandoning this polluted, overpopulated shit pile, the medical care he needs would be easily accessible. So he’ll try anything to live, including going back to work for his old crime boss who is involved in some (unsuccessful, from what we see) attempts to smuggle the tired, poor, huddled masses onto Elysium.
It’s written and directed by Neill Blompkamp of DISTRICT 9 fame. He’s from South Africa, and that movie was about apartheid of course, and this one is also about a separation between classes (not entirely, but mostly, along racial lines, it looks like). The whole planet is like one big favela on top of another big favela. Elysium is like a ring of luxurious mansions and golf courses on a perpetually beautiful Spring day.
Down on earth it’s a lived-in world, not only in the STAR WARS some-of-the-futuristic-equipment-is-not-shiny-and-new sense but also in the urban sense. The fast food mascot type statue with a voice box that acts as his parole officer has graffiti tags all over it. Max’s Adidas look old like they’d look when you found them at Goodwill. At one point when a spaceship is lifting off I noticed a plastic bag floating around in its wake. There’s a scene where Max has to get a robotic exo-skeleton surgically attached. They’re basically souping him up, and they look more like mechanics than doctors. He’s all dirty and they don’t even clean him off. The operating room has graffiti all over the walls. I bet there are cats living in there and shit.
That scene, by the way, made me realize “wait a minute – this is R-rated? They still make those?” And it was kind of refreshing to have that feeling that even though this is a big space ship type movie the danger to these characters is ages 14 and up. Bodies could be harmed.
I love the attention to detail. The rich have an alternative to tattoos, a way of raising parts of their skin in intricate designs, like doilies growing off of them. It’s a strange futuristic fashion trend, but subtle, not aggressive like, say, the crazy hairdos in HUNGER GAMES. I like the way the psychotic operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s Bruce Campbell, creating a topnotch villain with limited screen time) switches from ragged weaponry on Earth to a out-of-the-box, top-of-the-line power-armor on Elysium. He’s the rare person who’s sort of allowed to go between both worlds.
Blomkamp uses alot of unsteadicam, and I’m not sure if this is stylistic leftovers from the fakumentary part of DISTRICT 9 or if he was just trying to make Jason Bourne feel at home. There are definitely a couple parts where it creates a visual chaos that for me detracts from otherwise well executed action sequences. Other than that I like everything about the style of this movie. Blomkamp shoots everything as if on location, as if the digital spaceships and things are just part of the world and not something it would occur to him to focus on. No part of it feels like the big effects shot for the trailer.
The only thing I didn’t like other than the shakiness was the childhood flashbacks. It borders on GREEN LANTERN prologue territory when Max knew the female lead as a child and dreamed of going to Elysium with her. Also, the nun’s words to him are the only thing to make him seem like some kind of a chosen one instead of just a dude. These seem like accidentally undeleted deleted scenes. But I forgave them a little more by the end since they come together nicely at the climax.
You know what, I definitely didn’t notice that Max’s crime associate Spider was played by Wagner Moura, Nascimento from the ELITE SQUAD movies. Even after I saw that on IMDb I had to stare at some pictures to be able to see it. But at least I knew the surgeon guy with the face tattoos was Snowflake (Jose Pablo Cantillo) from REDBELT. Of course, Alice Braga was also in REDBELT, and she plays Frey, Max’s childhood friend, lost love and underworld doctor. (Between residuals for this, I AM LEGEND and PREDATORS I bet Braga does pretty well for somebody who’s not really a household name. Saving up for a spot on Elysium.)
I thought I should Google “elysium politics” to find out if people had figured out an acceptable way to be outraged by it. It’s a movie that starkly illustrates, among other things, the cruelty of a class system where people are shut out from health care because they’re poor. Here in the U.S. that’s a way of life viciously defended by an entire political party and part of the other one. It’s a very common stance but it can’t be supported by any major religious belief, code of honor or standard of basic human decency, and the movie shows that with very powerful, clear symbolism. Desperate mothers scrambling to sneak their sick daughters into the ol’ medipod – is Fox News gonna defend Elysium’s right to stop this?
Nah, they just compile quotes of reviews that say that it’s “heavy handed,” or that the politics are naive since they end up opening the borders to all immigrants. Or the New York Post complaining that it would be more exciting for them to blow up Elysium than “want to move in” (somebody sure doesn’t understand the movie). I guess you can’t admit that you’re against healing sick people so you just say you’re being lectured (for being against healing sick people).
I love it though ’cause it has that ol’ THEY LIVE “Figures it would be something like this” feeling. It’s not a lecture at all, it’s a portrait. Earth is a third world planet, a giant slum where everybody gets pushed around by unfeeling robot cops. When Max gets in trouble for making a smartass comment to one of them (not because it’s disrespectful, but because its programming didn’t get the joke) he has to face his parole officer, the aforementioned voicebox (like TOTAL RECALL’s cab driver, but with power over people’s lives).
I can’t think of another sci-fi dystopia that did it quite like this, but it’s just so despicable that I absolutely believe it. The rich people took off but left an automated system in place to keep the riff raff in line. And you can just picture them justifying it to themselves! It’s fairer that way. Not subject to human error. Everyone gets treated equally by the system. It’s not safe for us to be down there.
Yeah, I never realized it before, but that’s gonna happen some day.
Max used to be a criminal, but he’s straightened his life out, he has a job “on the line,” in some kind of giant factory, pulling levers and moving things around. Hard, sweaty, unfulfilling manual labor and he has to fight for it, almost getting kicked off a shift because of the broken arm from the stupid robocop. And then he has to risk his life because his supervisor tells him to. And he knows he shouldn’t and I’m sure they can’t legally make him do it but if he doesn’t he’s off the shift. So he does it, and gets radiation poisoning. The dumbass supervisor knows he just got a guy killed but doesn’t have the balls to apologize. A medical robot gives him some pills and thanks him for his service, at least. That was pretty classy.
Even Frey, who went away, got educated and came back to work as a doctor, has it pretty bad. Notice that when she tells him when her shift ends it includes both a time and a day of the week. And she can’t get care for her sick daughter either.
Come to think of it, if they had those medipods on Earth she might not’ve needed to go get that education anyway. She’d be out of a job. But she’d find something.
Of course this unbalanced system is defended by Elysium’s Homeland Security, led by Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who’s supposed to be French?). She’s a hawk who goes behind the president’s back, working with both weapons manufacturers who benefit from her policies and unsavory operatives on Earth like Kruger.
It works because it’s so true. Of course a guy who works a job like Max does is not gonna have insurance. And of course if a machine was invented that could scan the body for sicknesses and quickly repair them, the motherfuckers would put basically a security password on it so that only the right people could use it. It’s so inhuman that of course humans would do it. You fucking know it!
Some of the critiques I read complained that the residents of Elysium are not allowed to be developed, they’re just seen sipping wine out on their beautiful viewpoints, or laying by the pool. But of course that distance from them is exactly why it works. Showing their complicated lives isn’t necessary. We don’t assume they’re evil people. They’re just clueless and scared, like the neighbors who don’t answer the door for Laurie in HALLOWEEN. They don’t really think about other people not having what they have, and of course they don’t want to give it up. So when a spaceship crashes and some dirty people run, break open a window and try to use their machines, of course they feel invaded. We are entrenched in our worlds, and allow ourselves to ignore, or not even understand, the plights of others. And it sets up a situation where these outsiders who have been locked out, who desperately need help, seem like the bad guys. Or an inconvenience.
And because of this division people are able to be distracted from the simple concept that our society should do whatever it can to share the medical technologies we’ve developed. As much as possible we should use it to help everyone, not just the people who have lots of money and managed to get the jobs that provide the insurance.
Obviously it’s easier to identify with Max. I’d definitely be down on Earth in this scenario. Compared to most of you I’m probly poor. But I’m as comfortable as I need to be and sometimes when people ask me for money on the streets it’s hard to look them in the eye. And there are many parts of the world where most people have it worse than those guys do. I know that in a way I’m on Elysium. It’s not just an us against them story. We’re us but we’re sort of them too.
One little moment that I think is very important is when (SPOILER) Delacourt is dying, Frey doesn’t hesitate to protect her from Kruger, and tries to bandage her. When the tables are turned the earthling tries to share her medical care. Because that’s what you do, you dicks. You try to help somebody. But she doesn’t have the technological advantage, so she fails.
Max, on the other hand, is not always altruistic. It takes some doing and some coincidences for him to get beyond just trying to save his own ass. So not everybody’s Jesus, or even Luke Skywalker. But you try to do what you can.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.