[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Steve B. Enjoy!]
Fair warning: even for all his star turns and award nominations, I have something of a mental block when it comes to Matt Damon. After Good Will Hunting, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Damon is his puppet version in Team America: World Police, whose vocabulary included nothing but his own name uttered in, shall we say, a mentally subpar manner. No matter how many rip-roaring Bourne films he might make, it’s something I just can’t seem to shake. Sorry.
With that out of the way, we’re free to consider Damon in his most recent lead role as Max DeCosta, the hero of 2013 wannabe blockbuster Elysium. Directed by Neil Blomkamp, widely lauded for his Apartheid-with-aliens hit District 9, this latest dystopian romp into humanity’s future failings was granted a much bigger budget than the South African director’s previous effort. The $115 million film ended up clawing back just $93 million in the U.S., falling somewhat short of blockbuster status, although its international haul of an additional $193 million pushed it firmly into the black.
Elysium is set in 2154, by which time our filthy addiction to chasing the wrong kind of green has divided humanity. Literally, in fact, as the future’s one-percenters have abandoned the planet and taken up residence in Earth orbit, inhabiting the titular space station which serves as the perfect place to look down upon the great unwashed masses they’ve left behind.
And washing is perhaps the least of the concerns of those still earthbound, given that disease is rampant, cities are crumbling, and jobs are scarce (and as we’re about to learn, the jobs that do exist lack the rigorous health and safety standards most of us are currently accustomed to).
This stark contrast is quickly drawn—and repeatedly hammered home to the point of blunt force trauma to the eyeballs—by the medical care available to each world’s respective residents. Up on Elysium, healthcare is pretty sweet, with treatment for any ailment requiring little more than five minutes on a device that looks remarkably like a sunbed. Down on Earth, things are much less pleasant, with few treatments, fewer doctors, and hospital scenes that could be Republican anti-Obamacare ads left over from the last election.
Against this backdrop trudges Max (Damon), a recovering ex-con struggling to hold down a crappy factory job, as he simultaneously resists the call of his old criminal friends to return to an alternative career in grand theft auto. With Max on probation, and trying to win back the affections of Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend and mother to her adorable but dying daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), the stage is set for Max to inevitably get himself into some serious trouble.
While all this is happening down on Earth, a more metaphorical disease is spreading up on Elysium. This is the view of the station’s Secretary of Defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster, putting on a completely indescribable Frenglish accent). Her merciless acts of shooting down spaceships full of illegal immigrants and plotting with corporate conspirators make her the film’s intellectual villain (though, not its most malevolent). In Delacourt’s view, Elysium has “a political sickness inside of it,” and she thinks a coup that puts her in charge will be just what the doctor ordered for this figurative “tumor that needs to be removed.”
Aiding her in this scheme on Earth are industry magnate John Carlyle (William Fichtner), a rather ineffective character charged with trafficking a computer virus that can give Delacourt total control of Elysium, and Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a ruthlessly effective sleeper agent (and raging sociopath) who provides the required brawn to Delacourt’s nefarious brain.
In Delacourt’s first scene, we see her deal with ships full of refugees attempting to sneak their way up to Elysium. Their plan, however, seems astonishingly short-sighted. When they’re not being blasted out of the sky like targets in a cheap carnival game, they’re being exterminated without compunction by the station’s JusticeBots (™ me). The parallel is to desperate immigrants in our own time, of course, but it’s far easier to go undetected in the U.S. than riding rockets up to a bijou space station with advanced tracking technology and an automated Stasi to round up the undesirables.
After a slow start—too slow, really—the movie kicks into gear when Max has a workplace accident that exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation. The diagnosis comes to him in a comically curt fashion, as a robotic nurse dumps some pills next to a suffering Max, thanks him for his service, and informs him that he will die in five days.
Max realizes the only way he can possibly survive is if he makes it up to Elysium and gets access to their advanced medical technology. He enlists the help of a criminal kingpin known simply as Spider (Wagner Moura). And here we’re asked to suspend disbelief just a bit too far, as Spider has access to all kinds of advanced weaponry, computers, and even the spacecraft to make the dangerous voyage to Elysium, yet somehow can’t get hold of one of those magical sunbeds that would make all this fuss unnecessary (and the movie much less entertaining, admittedly).
In exchange for a trip up to Elysium, Max has to help them kidnap John Carlyle, who has the control virus for Elysium stored in his brain. To better assist in the job, Max undergoes surgery to graft a robotic exoskeleton to his spine, brain, and most other body parts, in what looks like a truly painful procedure. But this will give him the strength and endurance needed to fight the relentless mercenary Kruger, whom Delacourt has since “activated” and charged with annihilating Max before he can share the stolen control virus. Being a psychopath and all, Kruger decides to use Max’s loved ones as bait, and Frey and Matilda are soon dragged into the ordeal.
After several more scenes in which disbelief is now performing weightless flips like a giddy astronaut, the various protagonists do miraculously make it up to Elysium for the final showdown. Delacourt, proving the limited worth of her character to the movie, is swiftly killed off, as Kruger grows increasingly greedy at the prospect of controlling the station himself.
Kruger at one point comes back from being all but dead, now reborn and powered up by an exo-suit far more spectacular than Max’s backroom DIY job. The pair’s climactic battle is predictable yet satisfying, and the movie as a whole is like getting a gift card for Christmas: perfectly acceptable, but not requiring a whole lot of thought.
The high-octane encounters between Max and Kruger are what make Elysium stand out. It seems that being pursued by a pathological South African killing machine is what it takes for me to root for Matt Damon, and Sharlto Copley delivers the maniacal performance of a lifetime to achieve just that. Damon is solid enough in the role, but this is basically Kruger’s show.
While the concepts rolling around Elysium are timely, Blomkamp doesn’t add much to the conversation. Where District 9 served to shine a light on a specific issue that has largely faded from the world’s memory, Elysium presents lightweight parallels with issues of the day, never digging much deeper than “wealth inequality is a bad thing, huh?” It hits all the right hot-button topics—callous dismissal of poverty, a vast divide in quality of/access to healthcare, the alarming attitudes of some towards immigrants—but only scratches the surface of each. Perhaps the ideas are spread too thin, with Blomkamp’s desire to take his political observations to the next level serving only to dilute whatever specific message he originally intended for Elysium.
Even with that overreach, this is a movie worth the price of admission based on its action scenes, sporadic laughs, and a few touching moments between Max and Matilda as they face their grim fortunes together. Oh, and let’s not forget that scamp Kruger and his murderous ways. If you’ve never heard thinly veiled death threats in a menacing Afrikaans accent, now’s your chance.
In short, enjoy the little things with Elysium, but don’t expect to come away with any profound insights that will make you want to change the world. Except for those magic sunbeds… Let’s get on those pronto, science folks.