It’s a shame that Elysium is a lousy movie. It has all decoration, grandeur, and weight of a much better film, yet can’t drag itself above the simplicity of its own plot and metaphors. It’s like a great big cathedral you can see for miles, all the details coming into focus as you approach, and when you get inside it’s empty save for some tables and chairs. Neil Blomkamp, whose short films and mainstream debut District 9 made him one to keep an eye on, has almost set himself up a trap with a film like Elysium. On one side he has to create a compelling journey action drama, trekking from the slums of LA to the low orbit space station of Elysium. On the other he sets the story’s backdrop as a hopeless situation beyond repair, a dire circumstance that he must then repair or offer closure for in some way that doesn’t have audiences and reviewers scoffing about how much of a bummer he is.
To Blomkamp’s credit, there’s a lot of creamy goodness around this stale cake. The attention to detail in the settings and props is one of the few reasons to see this movie, and Blomkamp has set the bar with his sleek corporate and dusty third world aesthetic, informed by his years of living in South Africa. There’s simply no one making science fiction like Blomkamp right now, and his style stands in contrast to the future city noir styles we get from more western films such as Looper, Dredd, or I, Robot, and is more closely related to the cyberpunk offerings of Gibson or certain anime. Besides the visuals, Matt Damon is pretty on point, one of the few actors who can properly act reluctant and whose face exudes tension. Elysium itself is an interesting set piece but we only get brief glimpses of its surface sprinkled throughout the movie, much of the action on it spent wandering through sets leftover from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It handwaves lots of magical technologies like healing pods and more-human-than-human thugbots, but gets a pass for not turning Damon’s exo-skeleton into an Ironman suit, and actually teaching people that you could breath in an open air rotating space station.
But none of this is any fun without people to fill it with, and unfortunately the ones we get are the thin paper-mache kind. Jodie Foster as the villain is either purposefully going for camp or she showed up on set with an early draft. Her interrogation scene is so blunt and bonkers that you half expect her to crack a maniacal laugh at the end. Sharlto Copley as Kruger plays the muscle whose distinctive features are his weird way of talking and his limitless insanity, shifting up and down as the plot requires. His one progression is to get madder throughout the whole movie until he’s eventually offed in by-the-book fashion. The key love interest in Frey is sidelined to the victim the whole film, her leukemic child attached to her hip. her movement in and out of the plot barely registered by anyone but Damon. There are other side characters but few are any memorable and when they start to tag along to the main story it provokes some of the worst groans. After a certain point, the movie just hits this rail and wraps everything up like it’s leaving in a hurry, offering a disingenuous solution through the form of free healthcare for everyone. It’s easy to say that Elysium is a reflection modern feelings about society and the divide between the rich and the poor, but it’s very surface level, and isn’t a film with the guts to get in there and really offer anything subversive when given the chance.
What Elysium really needed was more running time, some space to really flesh out the world, let the characters mingle and give them room for purpose and motivation. As is this feels like a bigger film hollowed out, stripped to a core that works because it’s worked before.