I tend to reserve trips to the movie theater for big action pictures. There are some movies that don’t translate as well onto the small screen.
I suspected that Matt Damon’s newest movie, Elysium, was one of those movies. It certainly benefited visually from the big screen. It was an interesting movie on a few levels. That doesn’t mean it was a great movie. It had a few flaws.
Elysium was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp who made District 9. It shares much with that movie. It shares the same feel, that jittery camera feel at points, as well as the lighting (very bright) as well as the themes of alienation set in a science fiction context. In this instance, that alienation sets the context rather than being the point.
This time there are no aliens, but it is about the haves and have nots. This is a class warfare movie rather than a race relations movie. The haves live on Elysium, a huge space station with a comfortable and beautiful environment that hovers above the Earth. While there is a President, the focus is on Jodie Foster’s combination of Hilliary Clinton and Janet Nepolitano as Director of Homeland Security Delacourt. Yes, the use the phrase. She is a schemer with ambitions to be President, taking the place of the non-Caucasian currently occupying the office. Interesting huh? Reaching? I’m not sure.
They are there because the Earth of 2154 is now polluted and over-populated. Los Angeles is like a desert (the result of global warming?), and people live in decrepit skyscrapers and other hovels. We are introduced to Max and Frey as children. The nun who cares for them in the orphanage says he has a “special future.” But Max continues to steal from others and we meet him as an adult who is a convicted felon out on parole trying to keep his job.
Max (Damon) is anti-social, and sarcastic. His is not a likeable character (except for the sarcasm). Yet, he is put in the unenviable, unlikely position of being the hero. The issue that drives the plot is the Star Trek-like medical technology available only to citizens of Elysium.
Here is where things are unclear. Is Elysium where the ruling class lives (much like socialism)? Is it where the rich capitalists live? Some kind of crony capitalism colony where the rich & politicians live? This is not really answered. They seem to rule over Earth, and yet attempts to illegally on “undocumented shuttles” enter Elysium late in the movie are called an “act of war.” So, it is hard to see how this functions in the film. Is this a cry for universal health care? Is this about immigration policy? Both? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that Max receives a lethal dose of radiation during an accident at work. He has 5 days to live. He has to get to Elysium to use the medical technology if he wants to live. All they can do on Earth is give him pills to manage the pain. He seeks the help of a “coyote” named Spider who has bigger plans than just getting people to Elysium where they can get snatched up and sent back. Most, like Max, want a medical condition healed. A very few get that chance, but many die for their trouble.
Max is rigged with “old tech” body armor that gives him great strength to fight with the mercenaries employed by Delacourt. He has a mission to capture a citizen from Elysium and download the date from that guy’s brain to his. Then he can go to Elysium with the codes for safe entry.
What Max doesn’t know is that the guy he ambushes is part of Delacourt’s coup and had the code to reboot the computer system managing Elysium. He becomes a wanted man.
As a dying man, he gets help from Frey who is now a medical professional. Her life is complicated by a dying daughter. Max, who thinks only of himself, doesn’t want to help her. But in a twist of fate, all three of them are headed to Elysium in the custody of the mercenaries.
Once there havoc ensues as the mercenaries betray Delacourt and seek revenge on Max. Max seeks, finally, to protect Frey and her daughter. Spider “crosses the border” to take over Elysium using the date in Max’s head. Are there enough agendas there for you?
The movie is mostly bleak, and quite violent. Some of that violence is fairly gruesome. It does end on the note of self-sacrifice, semi-redemption.
You could enjoy this as an action movie. It is relatively entertaining as one. Not great, but clearly passable. The only problem is that you really don’t care about anyone, except maybe Frey and her daughter. The rest of the characters are in various places of the despicable scale.
You could try to “enjoy” this movie as a message movie. The only problem is the lack of clarity concerning that message (see above). Depending one which one, and where you stand, you might just get ticked off. So, I don’t recommend this approach.
What is clear is that this movie portrays a world without meaningful hope. It is bleak, stark and despairing. Elysium is a sort of utopia that must be stormed to gain access to its glories. In this case it is medical care. But will access to medical care really change the problems that plague Earth? Not in the movie, and not in real life.