Elysium (2013) Review:
One of the most important rules of story telling is “show, don’t tell”. Essentially, what it means is that, instead of explaining the importance of something to the viewer, the story teller needs to simply show it as it is and trust that the viewer is invested enough in the story to pick up on the pertinence of that story element. The technique can either be used to further the story or bring across a particular metaphor within the story. With film being a visual medium it is perhaps the easiest and most important medium to apply this technique, and of all the genres of film, Science Fiction is perhaps the hardest and most difficult.
Science Fiction is a genre which applies this technique through allegory. Taking real world ideologies and masking them in a quasi realistic universe. It’s the perfect genre to be done in as the whole basis for science fiction is taking familiar science fact and proposing it’s exaggeration into science fiction. It’s because of that initial familiar basis that we are able to connect to our favourite science fiction stories, and a continuation of that connection rests in the allegory proposed by the films elements.
Star Trek is an allegory for the U.N, Godzilla is an allegory for the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more recently, District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, is an allegory for the Apartheid system. The key in what made those films successful is that symbolism aside, there was always an engaging plot with interesting characters. A success unfortunately not found in the latest from Mr. Blomkamp, ‘Elysium’.
‘Elysium’ is set in post-apocalyptic 2154 on an overpopulated and ruined Earth, complete with copious amounts of dust, dirt and grime. The film never specifies what causes the Earth to assume this ruined state but the fault is implied to lie with man’s action and inaction. In the wake of the unfavourable condition that now plagues the planet, the wealthiest of Earthlings have opted to separate themselves from the less fortunate through the development of the very first country club in space, Elysium. Complete with household medical scanners that cure cancer, lush green gardens and robot servants, Elysium trumps Earth any day of the week, and is the driving force behind the films main protagonist Max, played by Matt Damon.
Max is a down on his luck ex-con whose whole life, much like the rest of the Earth’s population, has been spent trying to accumulate the funds to acquire a ticket to paradise. Throughout the first half of the film we are treated to his daily routine, working at a robot construction factory, dealing with robot parole officers and robot policemen.
As the film goes on however Max is presented with a chilling conflict for which the only solution would be to find a way to get to Elysium before it’s too late.
Matt Damon plays the role well and grounds the film immensely as he is successful in presenting the relatable every man who is thrust into an impossible and fantastic situation. The same can be said for the other characters on Earth like Alice Braga’s Frey who plays a nurse with a heart of gold whose only real care in the world is her daughter. The most outlandish of performances come from the characters on Elysium. Perhaps this was intentional in portraying the population as elitist as possible, but I found the characters to be over the top, and not in the good sense. In a movie in which most of the characters feel so real, a few feel like cartoon characters and make it difficult to buy the movies premise. I didn’t find myself believing that what the movie proposed would be a reality simply because the characters did not themselves feel real. In the first scenes of the film Jodie Foster’s character orders a ship of illegal would be Elysium citizens to be shot down, killing everyone on board. Being the opening of the film, it feels like a hollow moment simply because the movie hasn’t earned it yet. Yes Foster’s character is further presented as having a controversial and violent approach to things but the character herself never earns this establishment, which can be credited to Foster’s performance.
Characterization issues aside, the movies biggest problem comes into what I was talking about earlier. The movie is blatant in it’s message in being a reflection of the current status of healthcare, militarism and immigration in the United States. So much so that it ends up feeling heavy handed. I’m all for a movie being about something but that’s why there’s such a thing as subtext. Your thematic message should be somewhat coded to the viewer. Hidden within the movie to be found. It shouldn’t be obvious or overstated but in fact it should be that the audience can take it that way if they so choose to. Wall e is a good example. That film could be said to have a green message encouraging better care of the environment and ourselves, or it could be said to be a classic love story between a recluse and a girl who’s waaaaay out of his league.
Where Elysium fails is that the core story is about the character trying to battle the issues he faces due to his social status. The hidden message then becomes the story and you actually don’t feel like you’re enjoying any of it.
Aside from that, there are couple things that actually became endearing to me as the movie goes on. The film actually lets the viewer figure out for themselves how this world works. What people do on Earth and Elysium and establishes it’s universe pretty well. The technology alone is fascinating. It was exciting to discover what this particular droid does or what that rifle’s bullets look like. The look of the film is also mesmerizing. Grime never looked so good. In fact it looks like a high definition District 9. It maintains the same rustic environments and has it’s own element of beauty to it. Also the film is gore-geous. I haven’t seen heads explode that way since, well, District 9. Blood everywhere and the heads make a nice *pop* when they do :).
Overall, I can say that I definitely liked the film, just not as much as I wanted to. Phony and non existent characters and a lack of an endearing story made the film feel empty to me. However, fun violence, a well thought out beautiful world, and performances by Sharto Copley and Matt Damon make the film worth a watch, just with lowered expectations.
Rating: Catch It On Cable