Elysium Ends the Summer Blockbuster Season on a High!

Elysium image from Science Fiction

It’s good to have a pleasant surprise once in a while.

South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp was a nobody who worked on visual effects for TV shows like Stargate SG-1 and Dark Angel while occasionally making his own indie short films, until one day Peter Jackson, the man behind the Lord of the Rings movies, tapped him to direct his planned Halo movie. Halo fans, movie buffs, Peter Jackson groupies, and I all wondered who this unknown, unproven director was and speculated about how the film would turn out. In the end, it didn’t – the whole project blew apart spectacularly before any filming could even take place. However, there was a silver lining to that disaster. The attention that the doomed Halo film generated carried over when Blomkamp, with Peter Jackson’s backing, attempted his first feature-length film, District 9. Many who had been following the Halo movie fiasco, myself included, decided to check out this new movie to see what Blomkamp is capable of and speculate on how a Halo movie would have worked if it had ever been made. This guaranteed District 9 a surprisingly large audience and made it a box office success. Plus, District 9 turned out to be a pretty good movie, for all of that. Not great, not perfect, but a darn good freshman attempt by a new director.

Having said that, I did not have high hopes for Elysium, Blomkamp’s second feature-length action blockbuster. Yes, I knew the film stars Matt Damon, an actor I absolutely love, but I was certain that the movie as a whole would be unimpressive. I thought that District 9 was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments that couldn’t be replicated, and that Blomkamp just got lucky with that one. The trailers for the film gave me the impression that the wrong lessons had been learned from District 9‘s success, and the result would be poorly-executed message mongering. The film just didn’t appeal to me, but I agreed to go see it with my brother one evening anyway, more for an excuse to get out of the house than for any other reason.

Once again, I was surprised, and surprised in a good way.

"Everybody, I have an idea! Let's try to actually make a good movie!"

“Everybody, I have an idea! Let’s try to actually make a good movie!”

Elysium is actually a really, really good movie. Not only is it far better than I expected, not only is it far better than District 9, I am going to be so bold as to say it is by far the best put-together and most well-executed movie of the summer. It is gripping, tense, thrilling, exciting, emotional, and fun.

The movie takes place in the mid-22nd century, where the wealthy and powerful have all abandoned Earth and moved to a giant space station named Elysium, where they live lives of luxury in giant McMansions with massive patios and swimming pools, have robots that serve their every need, and have access to some sort of magic healing pod technology that can cure any disease, heal any injury, and give them virtual immortality. Meanwhile, the remaining 99% of humanity is stuck on an Earth that is polluted, diseased, impoverished, crime-riddled, and covered in nasty slums. Earth’s inhabitants also are surrounded by robots, but these robots are built to oppress and subjugate them instead of serve them. Everyone on Earth knows about Elysium and dream of one day making it up there, but Elysium’s “citizens”, as the film calls them, don’t so much as want an Earthling to breathe on them, and have built up massive defenses to prevent… (ugh, really, movie?) … “illegal immigration”.

Okay, so yes, the heavy-handed message mongering is still there. And just in case the audience still doesn’t get what the film is trying to say, the film shows that on Earth, the everyday language of the common people is Spanglish. *sigh*

However, things on Elysium are not nearly as idyllic as we are led to believe, as we are shown that behind the scenes, there is plenty of political backstabbing and conspiracies to be had, as our villain, Elysium’s Defense Secretary Delancourt (Jodie Foster), seeks to take power for herself. Down on Earth, we follow the story of Max de la Costa (Damon), a former car thief who was apparently some kind of underworld legend, but has reformed and is now trying to build an honest living working at the factory that builds the aforementioned robots. Then, one day, an industrial accident leaves him with only five days to live, unless, of course, he can get to one of those magic healing pods. In desperation, he turns to his old boss, a crime lord nicknamed “Spider” (Wagner Moura), who agrees to take Max to Elysium in return for one last job. This job, it turns out, brings Max and Spider straight into the middle of Delancourt’s schemes. Just in case this situation wasn’t complicated enough, two more rogue elements are brought into this dangerous mix – Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max who wants to get to Elysium for her own reasons, and Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious Elysian sleeper agent and disgusting nutjob whose true motivations are unclear. Once the situation is set up, the rest of the movie is like a five-way chess match between these characters, as they each try to outsmart each other and get what they need, sometimes teaming up and sometimes betraying each other.

I know, I know. This all sounds like it could easily turn into an impossible-to-follow mess. I’ve certainly seen some other movies that tried to juggle this many eggs and completely fall apart. However, Elysium manages to pull it off, carefully judging when to pull a twist and using them only sparingly. The movie also makes every character’s motivations and actions believable. Yes, the film does have its blatant political angle, but it doesn’t linger on it for too long. Instead, the film uses the politics mostly as a tool to contextualize the action, so you feel the consequences that Max’s failure would entail, keeping you at the edge of your seat in rooting for him to succeed.

Making the action the focus instead of the politics and the conspiracies? What a concept!

Making the action the focus instead of the politics and the conspiracies? What a concept!

The visuals are really good, too; however, I just couldn’t shake the sense, while watching this movie, that it recycles the set, prop, and vehicle designs that Blomkamp had originally drawn up for the Halo movie. The resemblance was really uncanny sometimes:

Halo image from Electric Blue Skies

Elysium image from First Showing

I guess it’s better not to let things go to waste, and it didn’t ultimately distract from the story, but it did seem a little odd to me.

In any case, the movie is a really entertaining, well-put-together, fun summer blockbuster. If you can get past the message mongering, it is a real treat, and a great way to finish the summer movie season. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.