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Review: "Elysium"

This review was previously published in my column at Towleroad

Matt Damon has a gym membership but no health care in ElysiumIn the future everyone has trouble finding good healthcare, there is no middle class, and Los Angeles is a cesspool. So far, so believable. By the future you mean next week, right? Dystopian fantasies work best when they prey on current fears and exaggerate like a mofo. ELYSIUM knows just where we hurt, aiming squarely for our 'have-not' wounds. Though there is no direct talk of politics in Neill Blomkamp's action flick / sci-fi allegory, this 22nd century Earth is a place where the Right Wing have obviously long since won the political wars. The Koch Brothers and Friends, the "Corporations are People!" set, have vacated the filthy planet altogether to rule from afar and horde their wealth. They orbit the earth in mouthwatering luxury aboard the titular space station Elysium which spins like a pricey slo-mo hamster wheel (think 2001: A Space Odyssey. Add bling, swimming pools and golf courses), though it's undoubtedly the 99% who are powering it with their sweaty manual labor.

One such laborer is Max DaCosta (Matt Damon) who is foolishly hoping to 'work his way up' and buy a ticket to Elysium. He's an ex-con, though, and delusional about his future prospects. Even his childhood love Frey (Alice Braga), a stand-up citizen and steadily employed nurse can't afford to move there. In the future good health care is only available to the 1% despite technology so advanced that anything this side of death is instantaneously curable (think magic not medicine) and Max and Frey are out of luck. Socioeconomic mobility is as extinct as the weird animals that Max and Frey look at in picture books as children in flashbacks -- what the hell is a giraffe?

And also: why is Jodie Foster so pissed off???  

Despite the obvious nature of Elysium's class divide allegory, which is cleverly fused to the equally hot button topic of immigration reform, the movie trusts that we'll keep up without the dead weight of political arguments. The movie never says so but there's also no such thing as Unions or Workmen's Comp or any other worker's protections in this awful future. All of which is very bad news for Max and Frey, who have rather pressing needs on Elysium and every intention of getting there. Jodie Foster as Secretary of Homeland Defense is NOT having it. She's so pissed at everyone that you'd think they violated her privacy as a celebrity and not just the airspace of her gated community. 

The 33 year old South African Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp made a rather seismic debut a few years ago with the Apartheid allegory District 9, a DIY scifi blockbuster that looked far pricier than it could possibly have been and made money hand over fist alien claw in release on its way to four Oscar nominations. That's an unusual amount for a foreign indie OR a genre flick. For his second feature, he hasn't strayed far. The similarities in look and feel and sci-fi fury at human rights violation are omnipresent. The plots even share a sick protagonist who is losing his literal humanity though this time Sharlto Copley, who was so remarkable as the desperate hero in District 9, is in league with the baddies as a cyborg mercenary named Kruger. 

Sharlto Copley's swordpull in Elysium

Unfortunately the battle over basic human rights versus privileged corruption is less than dynamically conveyed by the actors. The problem may be that both the "haves" and "have nots"  have not when it comes to personality. Damon and Braga are competent performers playing The Hero and The Girl but not much else within this context. Copley and Foster, on the other hand, seemed locked into an actorly contest of who can exude the most evil. Copley's inhumanity is wildly scuzzy, temperamental and over the top. Foster, though, plays EVIL in robotic all caps as if human nuance and shadings couldn't possibly penetrate her waxy synthetic heartlessness. But, oops, she's not the one playing the cyborg. On the whole Elysium isn't a match for District 9 and not just due to these characters. The fetishistic love of guns and weapons of mass destruction, which was admittedly even more pronounced in the earlier film, is a weirdly uncomfortable companion to this story's bleeding liberal heart.

Still, there's no denying Blomkamp's visual imagination and facility with high concept stories and big action scenes. His filmmaking team all do strong work and the film never looks less than great.  Elysium's MVP is the production designer Philip Ivey who brings real world-building allure from the shantytowns of Earth to the luxury of that coveted space station. The best touch is that Medusa-like insignia on the health care machines in every Elysium home; these machines cure everything but their hearts of stone.  

Grade: C+
Oscar Chances: Though the movie's reception probably guarantees that it won't follow in District 9's four nomination (inc. Best Picture) footsteps, it's possible that it might break through in a craft category or two. But which? Trent Opaloch's Cinematography, Philip Ivey's Production Design, former Oscar nominees Julian Clarke and Lee Smith on Editing, the Visual Effects team, Ryan Amon's Score or the Sound in general?
Related Posts: District 9


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Reader Comments (15)

I honestly can only reiterate all of the things that you so eloquently stated in your review. "Terrible" is the only word that comes to mind regarding Foster's performance (what was with that accent?), and I spent the entire movie wanting to kill Copley myself simply for being annoying. Aside from the look of the film, it is somewhat difficult to believe that the same director helmed the much better "District 9." It's frustrating that the couple of films I've seen this year that had real potential to address the subject of wealth distribution wound up saying nothing meaningful or worthwhile.

And am I the only who thinks it wholly illogical to have put Elysium that close to Earth without securing its perimeter with some type of force field or something?

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Why is "why is jodie foster so pissed off" hyperlinked to the same review?

Honestly, I was expecting the worst from Jodie based on all the reviews. Nope, I don't see what all the negative hyperbole is about. Does everyone not realize this is a summer blockbuster and not an awards bait drama? Or is this a "to those whom much is given much is expected" type situation. I do think it's interesting her line readings were similar to William Fichtner's. - that can't be a coincidence. Maybe an old school Elysian thing?

Yes the villains are all one dimensional but overall I enjoyed them more than Damon and his pitiful cohorts. Too bad Fichtner dies so early. Damon is nothing special and his scenes with Braga weigh down the whole movie and god the flashbacks!

I still liked it though. One of the better blockbusters of the summer - and maybe that's not saying much.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Maybe Jodie is angry because she would rather be directing than playing second banana to Matt Damon.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDevon

The movie proposed a false suspension of disbelief by showing us computer that controls all of elysium and health of any citizen by boot code that is nothing more than Intel etc. assembly language - machine code of 1970's 8086 microprocessor.

CPU machine code in 2145 has not changed since 1980?
The director of this movie has played us for

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard R

So disappointing. The worst performance of Jodie's that I've ever seen, and Copley was terrible too.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

If memory serves, Jodie Foster speaks fluent French, so it baffles me that her French accent seems so wrong to my ear in this film. But the film does look great, and I remember thinking as the credits rolled to Phillip Ivey's name that he might want to get fitted for a March tux.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

I think the accents REALLY held some of the cast back. Jodie, Sharlto and whoever that dude was who played the hacker because I barely understood him in most of his scenes. Damon was nothing special either but i blame that on the character. Nothing much to him.

With Jodie, it was probably because of the hyper-blonde hair color and style but nearly her whole time on screen, i kept thinking how much better Tilda Swinton would've been in that role.

I did like the movie as a whole though.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

What a disappointment. Still trying to figure out why I never card about any of the characters in the film.....never cared about Matt Damon...never really hated Jody Foster...they never developed the characters at all....consequently you kept looking at your watch waiting for it to be over. Fight scene editing with robots was so fast it was dizzying and annoying to watch. Entire crowd barely reacted through entire film.....just bored and enduring it.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd

I thought that this movie looked fantastic. I know they say it has a "political agenda" but who cares? You don't have to watch the movie if you think it's fictional story will offend you right?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterImmi

Jodie Foster can't act anymore, it's as simple as that.
She was completely awful in Carnage as well. And, man, she couldn't even direct herself to a good performance (The Beaver)...
Very sad...Her work in Silence Of The Lambs, Accused and Taxi Driver rank among the best ever.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich


August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike Dorn Wiss

"Why is Jodie Foster so pissed off?"

Because she is supposed to be channeling Marine Le Pen, the real-life high profile leader of the ultra-nationalist Front National party in France. (Google her. You will see they tried to get Jodie's hairdo to match-up.) Hence, the French accent. This of course makes sense, given that the movie is essentially about immigration and class (just like District 9), and the FN party is strongly against immigration, seeking to preserve indigenous French culture. The riots by Arab/African immigrants in 2005 in the poor suburbs of Paris helped bring the FN to greater significance in French politics, also helping to highlight the controversy of poorly considered mass immigration all over Europe.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFuriousYT

This was one of those movies which had a better trailer. I decided to watch it because of the trailer.

The themes were very good and topical. But the movie was much less than it could have been. Off late, most of the blockbusters have been kind of underwhelming.

I thought the movie suffered from the same problems as last year's spiderman. You don't feel anything for the protagonists. That was my biggest grouse. Perhaps the director was trying to present the characters as imperfect. But I never felt any amount of sympathy for their causes nor dread when they reached Elysium.

But the best analogy was how Jodie Foster's character arc is completed. It is a very good analogy for US--if someone gets it.( @Nat would like to know your thoughts)

October 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Rohit Bohra

I totally agree with Troy H, spending the entire movie wanting to kill Copley (Kruger) myself simply for being annoying, and the TERRIBLE Afrikaans accent! JAN PIEREWIET!!! REALLY! !! It's a total embarresment to all Afrikaans speaking South Africans! Ja Boet! I couldn't believe it, such a let down! Nobody in their right mind speaks like that, not even a complete "Rock Spider"!

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYvette

this movie sucked a fat cock. fuck his movie and all of the director's gay assholes. he deserves to suck cock and swallow spunk for eternity. fuck this cocksucking bitch for producing this piece of shit film that made sense whatsoever. and fuck every dickloving bitch who thought this movie had some intrinsic political message. this movie milked the vas deferens for all it was worth and got hydrated on the man milk. no movie has ever made me so dissapointed in hollywood and the cockbaggery that is allowed to be produced. fuck these dickheads and punch their bean bags a thousand times over.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjabiatch

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