Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
It’s the twenty-second century. Planet Earth is ill, overpopulated and polluted. Only the poor live on Earth. The wealthy, served by droids and robots, live in Elysium, a huge station orbiting the Earth which looks like a five star resort. Max is an ex-convict with a modest job in a factory. He has always tried to get by, but one day, after being exposed to radioactive radiation, he is left with only five days of life… unless he manages to reach Elysium, where there are capsules that can heal any disease. Ready to do anything to stay alive, Max finds himself involved in something larger than himself.
Director-screenwriter Neill Blomkamp came to the world’s attention four years ago with District 9, a low-cost, but highly original science fiction. In the film, a group of ugly, dirty and (maybe) evil aliens are shipwrecked on earth and settled in a slum at the border of Cape Town while waiting for a chance to return to their planet. Blomkamp uses the aliens as a metaphor for contemporary society and its way of relating to outcasts. He does this with intelligence and humor, not worrying about political correctness (by the way, the actor who plays the selfish and cowardly main character in District 9, Sharlto Copley, appears in Elysium as a rather violent undercover government agent).
In Elysium, Blomkamp tries to do the same. However, excluding the undeniable visual value of the film, the story ends up crushed under the weight of its idealism and a plot full of flaws that never delves into any of the characters.
In this dystopian future, the notorious “1%” stops raising walls to keep the poor out and builds Elysium, a new, clean, luminous world (with a perfect healthcare system) away from Earth, which is then is reduced to one violent slum. It’s an interesting premise; the problem is that the movie is dominated by its desire to denounce the current tragic situation rather than to tell a story that involves and inspires. This is the main reason why the storytelling lacks congruence and meaning.
Max, the main character, is raised in a sort of orphanage run by loving but fatalistic nuns who educate him to a personal calling, but then tell him to live with the fact that “some things can’t be changed”. After trying (and failing) to get an improbable ticket to Elysium in an illegal way, Max resigns himself to a life on Earth. But an accident causes him to face the reality of death in just a few days. And here is where the incongruences start. Because Max, despite the radioactive contamination which should physically destroy him, manages to run, shoot, and beat villains up even better than Rambo. All thanks to some pills and a robotic exoskeleton…
If Blomkamp didn’t want to renounce physical combats for his leading man, but to give him a good reason to fight his way to Elysium, the cute but conveniently terminally ill daughter of his ex-girlfriend would probably have been enough. Clearly, Blomkamp didn’t want to leave any doubt about the reluctant nature of our hero…
At a certain point of the story, Max ends up by having information in his brain regarding a conspiracy led by the minister Delacourt (aka Jodie Foster, who strives to give credibility to the caricature of the most horrible, warmongering, racist politician ever seen) — information that could put Earth’s people in the condition to get Elysium citizenship and its many advantages.
But it doesn’t take too long for the story to collapse under the weight of all its references the present. And, because of that, the movie never manages to really involve the viewer.
Even Max’s personal evolution from selfishness to the will to sacrifice in the name of his neighbour, is not told in a convincing and original way. His journey ends up as a repetitive sequence of gunfights and conversations on abstract moral issues: an unsatisfying and rather heavy substitute for an idealistic statement.
Problematic elements: Many scenes of extreme (and sometimes horrifying) violence; obscene language.
Laura Cotta Ramosino is a story editor for Rai Uno, the national Italian broadcaster, and contributes to different magazines and websites about cinema and television.