Elysium (2013) – Directed by Neill Blomkamp – Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, Emma Tremblay, Faran Tahir, and William Fichtner.
I skipped ELYSIUM when it was in the theaters because what I was hearing from all of my friends was that it was a disappointment. Watching it now, I can understand why someone would be underwhelmed by Neill with Two Ls Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9, though I found it to be a darkly engaging film and satisfying experience. But yes, I can understand the disappointment: ELYSIUM is not as good as District 9 and it was released in August, at the end of an increasingly long summer season, and ELYSIUM, much like District 9, is not so much an action movie with dramatic scenes to connect them as it is the inverse, a drama with action scenes to punctuate the characters’ journeys.
Perhaps ELYSIUM was not given the best chance to succeed, then, with either audiences or critics. Maybe it didn’t matter when the film was released, as it’s hard for any director to recreate a thunderbolt. District 9 hit people from out of relative nowhere and it was an easy film to get behind. Made for the (relative) paltry sum of only $30 million and coming with the blessing of “Peter Jackson Presents,” District 9 was a different kind of sci-fi film from those around it.
In contrast, ELYSIUM wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone and unless Blomkamp completely reinvented himself (and why would he?), the film wasn’t going to seem unique. Just being the follow-up to District 9 would be enough, but when you place the names of two Hollywood stars above the title and you spend nearly four times as much money to make it … maybe there was no way ELYSIUM wasn’t going to disappoint, at least a little. Maybe the various studios that funded the movie are happy enough with the money the film did make ($285 million on a $115 million budget) and the mostly positive (if not glowing) reception to the movie from critics that everyone can pat each other on the back and move on to Blomkamp’s next movie.
The film gets off to a rocky start. We meet a young kid named Max (as a kid: Maxwell Perry Cotton; as an adult: Matt Damon), who befriends Frey (as a kid: Valentina Giros; as an adult: Alice Braga), and dreams of going to Elysium, a space station visible in the sky where all the rich people live. There’s a bunch of “you will be special” talk from a nun, and the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film feels forced, obvious, and unnecessary. We don’t really need to know that people think Max will be special, because we know he grows up to be Matt Damon and have a movie made about him.
The “special one” talk works against the film, too. ELYSIUM is mostly a commentary about the widening economic gap in our contemporary world; Max’s world is a consequence of less and less people controlling more and more of the world’s money. We’re living that process now, as the idea of the American dream, of everyone having a wife, kids, two-car garage, and a house in a nice neighborhood has been replaced by the image of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his private vault of gold coins.
We’re all complicit in this, to some regard. Make no mistake, the ultra wealthy and their Congressional cronies who are doing anything and everything they can to horde the wealth instead of creating a system where everyone profits are the main problem. (Eric Holder’s entire concept of banks being “too big to fail” is problematic not because the banks are large but because it coats the people who run the banks in legal teflon; even when you’re found guilty, those who have the money make the rules.) Corporations are going to make their millions and billions even if the minimum wage is raised to a livable amount, but they’re so blinded by the idea of swimming in gold that they don’t see (or care) that this isn’t a sustainable system. At some point, you squeeze the lower and middle classes to a breaking point and they realize there’s more of them than there is of you. The world of ELYSIUM is one where the rich live off-Earth and off the Earth, where the masses have become nothing more than exploitable and replaceable entities.
Blomkamp does a good job creating a society that is nearing the breaking point. Los Angeles is overstuffed and under-supported. People are jammed in tight and fed up, but most still take the crumbs the wealthy toss down to them. There are pockets of rebellion in evidence, as Spider (Wagner Moura) runs a smuggling operation to get people on shuttles to Elysium if they can meet his price.
Max has been to prison and gets his arm busted by two robot cops on his way to work. After briefly (and surprisingly, to him, because he doesn’t know he’s in a movie) reconnecting with Frey, who’s working as a nurse at a hospital, Max shows up late for work at Armadyne, a defense contractor. Max’s supervisor wants to replace him for showing up with a cast on his arm, but Max convinces him not to and pushes through. Through these scenes of over-crowded hospitals, busses, run down houses and apartments, and most importantly, Max’s determination to keep working, Blomkamp artfully demonstrates a post-apocalyptic society that got there not through virus outbreak or alien invasion but the slow erosion of a viable working class through the concentration of capital in the hands of a few.
Work is so hard to get that when Max is faced with a choice to enter a containment unit that could dose him with radiation to un-jam a door, he knows it’s a dumb thing but does it anyway. And, predictably, he gets dosed with a massive amount of radiation and is given a “five days to live” pronouncement from the company doctor. Armadyne’s Chief Executive Officer John Carlyle (William Fichtner) is only concerned with how this affects production, going so far as to say he wants Max removed so he doesn’t spoil the bed sheets he’s lying on.
It’s cartoon villainy, of course – Carlyle all but twirls the ends of his non-existent Snidely Whiplash mustache. The biggest fault that I can lay at the feet of ELYSIUM are the villains. Carlye, Defense Secretary Delacort (Jodie Foster), and, on occasion, Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley), aren’t so much characters as they are functions. Carlyle is the evil corporate exec. Delacort is the power-hungry military woman who thinks the President is too weak. Kruger is the out of control secret agent. Of the three, Kruger is the only character I like, the only character that works beyond simply being a function, but Blomkamp can’t help himself with this troika of bad guys, and we get an actual scene where Kruger sniffs the hair of the captured Frey as he professes his desire to possess her.
As hokey as the villains are, Blomkamp minimizes their roles as much as possible. I’ll give him credit for that, at least – if he’s creating functions more than characters, he knows to not make the mistake that they’re characters. Carlyle and Delacort appear only when they have to appear to move the plot along. Kruger is more of an actual character and thus gets to have an actual role in the film; he’s still partly functional and thus his appearances do serve mostly to push the plot forward, but Copley gives him all the life he can. I can see Kruger existing outside of the film, where Carlyle and Delacort must shut down the moment the cameras are off them.
The focus of ELYSIUM is placed squarely on the bald head and square shoulders of Matt Damon, who continues to consistently turn out good performance after good performance. Damon exists in that liminal space between movie star and actor, not quite recognized as the best of either, but as dependable as any above the title actor.
If Damon has a fault it’s that he does exactly what’s needed of the role. That’s why he’s so dependable, but the downside of that is that he’s often trapped by the quality of the people around him. Unlike a George Clooney (movie star) or Sean Penn (actor), he rarely forces a movie to be better through sheer force of personality or will. His performances rarely dazzle, but they’re almost always what the part requires.
As Max, Damon delivers a performance that is thrilling but not showy; you’ve got to look for it because he folds himself into the film, becoming merely another cog in Blomkamp’s vision.
But look for it, and Damon delivers.
Max is a guy trying to do the right thing, but caught between dream and reality. Those scenes that were so clunky early on where the nun told the childhood Max that he was special and now laid to waste – he’s just a guy who’s made mistakes trying to stay straight, trying to do right. While the villains are largely stereotypes, Damon never lets Max devolve into obvious type. He’s trying to live straight but he can’t help but be a wise-ass when the robo-cops confront him, which leads to his broken arm. When fate puts him and Frey into the same room, he can’t help but come off as slightly desperate in his attempt to get her back; Max doesn’t want to live without her but Frey has moved on from their childhood promises. It’s easy to see she’s this is more a response to things Max has done than a decision she wanted to make.
Frey has a young daughter who’s sick with leukemia. She brings her to work but the doctors have told her she can no longer do this, that they only have room for those who need immediate treatment. Again, Blomkamp nails the social commentary – there’s healthcare but it’s not what it could be. It’s overburdened and understaffed, with a focus on prioritizing and prolonging instead of curing.
ELYSIUM’s best scene comes after an irradiated Max has made a deal with Spider to get security codes by jacking information from Carlyle’s head. In exchange, Spider will put Max on one of his smuggler flights to Elysium, where he can be cured. They have medical machines on Elysium that can diagnose and instantly fix any illness or physical malady. (Kruger later gets his whole face restored after eating a bomb.) Spider’s mechanical engineers have connected an exoskeleton to his body, allowing Max to counter the effects of the radiation poisoning. The heist goes semi-wrong and as a result, Max goes on the run. Needing help, he goes back to Frey’s hospital, and she brings him home. Frey is desperate for Max to bring Frey to Elysium in order to have her leukemia cured. Max refuses to bring Frey and Matilda (Emma Tremblay) with him because of the danger.
I love that heroism isn’t something Max embraces. Post-radiation bath, he’s motivated by the need to cure himself first and foremost. It’s Matilda who gets him to see the light, but it’s not like she gives a speech and he changes. No, instead, she tells him the story of a meerkat who’s too small to reach his much-needed food supply:
Matilda: There once was a meerkat who lived in the jungle. He was hungry, but he was small. So small. And the other big animals had all the food, because they could reach the fruits. So he made friends with a hippopotamus to…
Max (interrupting her): Okay, stop. It doesn’t end well for the meerkat.
Matilda: Yes it does, because he can stand on the hippopotamus’s back to get all the fruits he wants.
Max: What’s in it for the hippo?
Matilda: The hippo wants a friend.
Matilda, like the meerkat, is motivated by her own self-interests and sees in Max/the hippo a path to what she wants, but in exchange offers not monetary rewards but friendship. It’s an impressive scene because it could turn corny and sour very easily, but Tremblay and Damon play it perfectly, right up to Max walking out on her, still refusing to help.
Kruger ends up taking Frey and Matilda captive, and Max turns himself into Kruger, ready to make a deal, and then we run through an extended action sequence that ends with Spider pulling the info out of Max’s head and turning everyone on the planet into citizens of Elysium and thus eligible for the magic machine treatment. Matilda is cured and medical ships are sent to Earth.
In the end, it’s telling that citizenship brings with it not guaranteed jobs or higher wages, but healthcare. Victory in Blomkamp’s film isn’t for the entire world to transport to Elysium or for Max to have a happy ending, but to guarantee healthcare for the world. It’s an attack on the lack of decency from the upper class who have the means to fix the people of the world and refuse. ELYSIUM’s reality is firmly rooted in our own, as we keep the sick from getting the care they need. Or if we do give it, we demand payment for cures and treatments beyond what it necessary. The bigger the cure, the higher the cost of receiving it, meaning the less people that will have access to it.
While ELYSIUM never quite reaches the heights of District 9, I still think it’s an excellent film. Blomkamp’s cautionary tale/social critique hits many more right notes than it misses, and thanks to fantastic performances from Damon, Braga, Tremblay, and Copley, this is a film that is far more riveting than infuriating.
Neill Blomkamp is one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next, but I’ll watch ELYSIUM several more times between now and then.