Strange and partly stupid - that's how I would have summed up the experience of watching Elysium two days ago. Today I feel more reconciled with the film, and less offended by the stupid bits. After all, there are some good things to say about this flick.
Staggering audio and CGI create a realistic and raw atmosphere for a story, that takes place in the early 2100s. Not unlike District 9 this film has a suction that immediately grabbed me inwards, and I can't think of any other film being equally successful in world immersion in that short amount of time. The bustle of an overpopulated Earth, and crowded markets - it left me feeling exhausted in a really good way. The shaky camera and aesthetic stabilization techniques are spot on for those nervous moments when we get to see poorly ghetto life on Earth, and zoom in to where Matt Damon's character Max resides in his sad little hut. Director Neil Blomkamp was praised for District 9, his debut in feature film, for referencing his South African background in the movie's vibrantly unglamorous city life, and I think he did it just as well in Elysium.
As one of the themes, the film depicts diametrical life styles of different classes, possibly even modern castes, as in the rich, educated elite and the poor uneducated working class - the majority of people. The portrayal is as poignant as it is realistic, and it leaves little doubt about it being allegorical. Elysium is a space habitat built by and for the elite, and it's their retreat to get away from overpopulated and disease-ridden Earth. There is advanced technology on Elysium to achieve virtually everything; cure all kinds of diseases with one machine called Med-Pod as it works to replicate and restore the entire human gene pool. Incidentally, every house comes with one of these machines.
As my husband in his capacity as professional Scifi buff pointed out to me, having access to that kind of technology would prevent anyone from ever becoming sick, which is something to think about. Yes, yes, stomped by the science geek - so what else is new on Elysium? Maybe longevity, and a carefree existence in luxury?!
But here is where the problems start: the stylistic dichotomy of two worlds can be an interesting device to transport ideas of social change and equality, as far as it's done in a realistic manner.
In this story, it makes sense that the citizens of Elysium are afraid of their little Eden being overrun by illegals trying to plunder their houses and rob them of their fancy candle sticks. What doesn't make sense however is the rich people's refusal to share their awesome technology with everyone. I could understand it, if it were about making money off of millions of earthlings, and pharmacological studies done to provide better services to the rich. But that's not implied in the story. Humans on Earth are Elysium's sick labor slaves, and as such they are treated with contempt. With them only being a short train ride away from Elysium, that would be the ultimate recipe to soon seeing some rich heads on pikes - it's sooooo 18th century!
Everyone who has learned anything about history knows that the way to preserve the rich remaining rich is to keep laborers healthy, fed and unorganized so they'll march to their tune without turning on them - that would be the way to go.
Blomkamp's idea of exploitation is graphic, but it just isn't reasonable, at least for a science fiction film that wants to be taken seriously. I know, they needed the ultimate reason for Damon's character Max to go there, still, it doesn't excuse that they chose a stupid one.
Jodie Foster plays the part of Elysian minister Delacourt, the villain who tries to keep the unprivileged people out and soon attempts a coup d'état against the Elysian council - mainly because they value human life all too much. She, on the other hand, has no objections to shoot down pods transporting illegals to Elysium. By the way, Foster's forced and put-on French accent and silver power bitch suit made horrible choices to represent elitist humans. Just sayin'.
Roughed up Matt Damon, on the other hand, was a tad more convincing. I enjoyed his in-your-face way of approaching desperate situations with equally desperate methods, and the sure - why not decision to get bio-medical implants did at least make me laugh. I mean, even in that day and age, it's not the same as getting your hair cut!
Similar to District 9 protagonist Wikus, Max is the unlikely hero, a cowardly and selfish guy who ultimately rises to the challenge of doing the right thing by siding with the oppressed humans. But unlike District 9, much of his world-saving seems to happen along the lines of saving himself, not by factual choice, and that does make a difference in my perception of him. And it also is not that much of a stretch, the character arc is not leading us to a reformed character with a brand new point of view.
Delacourt's go-to outlaw agent Kruger is kinda silly - sort of a caricature version of every villain in every bad movie put together, and the weird mingle-mangle of accents did make him look even more cartoonish. The fact that he is played by Sharlto Coplay makes the performance at least entertaining. And style-wise, I enjoyed the sartorial crossing of a hobo and Mad Max.
The main thing that bothered me about the film is that at some point, the Blockbuster elements took over. I think they squandered its potential. For one, they felt the need to introduce a super computer. Come on people, how likely is it that with all this safety measures, they'd have a central computer, that can be rebooted that easily? How meaningful is social change anyway, when it is brought on by a manner of pushing a reset button on a computer? More importantly, what a depressing idea that errors in bureaucracy should be accountable for the fate of billions! One superhero killing suits?! I don't know. It is a nice idea, but it doesn't seem very plausible.
I don't doubt Blomkamp's vision for Elysium. I'm guessing what it boils down to was the executives and financiers decisions to sacrifice plot and grit to make this film appealing to a large group of people, by keeping its overall message inoffensive and the character's choices largely agreeable. In many ways, it ended up marginalizing the social commentary to make it fit the Blockbuster formula. And that's where it went astray. District 9 was a dangerous movie, a defiant dark horse that merely looked with half an eye for the audience's approval. It broke with convention, and it excelled in telling a sublime story. This one however, wants to fit in with the Blockbuster crowd all too much, that's why, I'm sad to say, it doesn't stand out from it.