Movie Review: Elysium‘s Grim Dystopian Vision Captivates More Than Its Sputtering Subplots

As with his film District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium takes place in an imagined dystopian/utopian future. The world’s wealthy have fled a sick and overpopulated planet for life in a sophisticated space station hovering in Earth’s orbit. The station, called Elysium, is a massive, cyclical satellite whose design is reminiscent of both Stars Wars and 2001 Space Odyssey as well as the fabricated island cities subdivisions of the United Arab Emeritus. Most of Elysium’s action, however, takes place far from the suburban, villa-lined ecosystem, and instead in the 22nd century Los Angeles, which has become a Mad Max-style industrial dystopia, with the Hollywood Hills swallowed by a San Paolo-like sprawl of squalid urban poverty.

There we find Max (Matt Damon), a good-natured former criminal who is trying to right his life by holding down a job in a Chinese-like mega-factory that produces the very robots that are the means of Earth’s citizen’s oppression. We are first introduced to Max via a serious of hazy flashbacks to his childhood, during which he (and by extension we, the audience) learn the future history of Earth and Elysium. By the time he has grown, Max’s best friend Frey has fled the hard world of their youth, and the implication of Max’s criminal past is that it is difficult to survive in Earth’s ghettos and avoid getting involved with some sort of criminality. Like a 19th century industrial worker, life in the factory offers little. A workplace accident exposes Max to so much radiation that he is given just five days to live. His only option: return to his criminal past and blast his way into Elysium, where the cure for virtually all diseases is readily available in the form of a MRI-like machine that sits in the homes of all the wealthy inhabitants.

Elysium balances two central dramatic thrusts. The first one involves Max’s relationship with Frey, which is rooted in childhood promises that the loyal Max still desires to see fulfilled in adulthood. Frey’s daughter is dying of leukemia, and Max is hell-bent on seeing her cured by transporting the two of them to Elysium. This story takes shape as a sweet, if somewhat obtuse melodramatic subplot which plays in counterpoint to a more socially-minded drama about immigration and social revolution. After he is poisoned, Max gets back in cahoots with Spider (Wagner Moura), a criminal underworld boss who seems inspired by the silhouette of Che Guevera. Spider commissions the desperate Max on a suicide mission to steal data stored in the brain of a prominent CEO. Little do they know, the CEO happens to be involved in his own intrigue. Deacourt (Jodie Foster), an Elysium official, is trying to overthrow the president of the utopian world so she can enact more draconian measures against the desperate earth-bound “illegals’ trying to flee to Elysium.

You can begin to see how political buzz words flutter around Elysium’s allegorical scenario. The philosophic and political implications of Elysium’s imagined world are allowed to percolate on the surface, without too much delving into intricate details or implications of the film’s brain-bound technology or computer-reliant political systems. Simply put, we are dealing with the imagined implications of a host of present day social problems – from immigration to economic divides. Max and Spider’s crew find themselves hunted by a crew of bounty hunters, and after some intense shootouts and stalemates, Max finds himself leading a mission that could prompt a full scale revolution.

Blomkamp manages to squeeze a lot of ideas into Elysium’s 109 minutes, and yet the film feels like it boggles its pacing and mismanages its emphasis at times. The relationship between Max and Frey is largely utilitarian, existing to advance other aspects of the plot, while some of the action scenes jump forward jerkily, undercutting some of the tension generated by the film. Damon’s Max shows flashes of personality, but like most of the characters in Elysium, he offers scarce more than a cardboard cutout. Blomkamp shows gruesome imagination when he comes up with cleverly gory ways of exploding his characters. But Blomkamp’s real talent is revealed by the simmering implications of his scenario. Elysium wreaks with Orwellian or Huxleyan social prescience, leveraging sci-fi with an imagination akin to Ridley Scott, and presenting a vision of the future that is believable precisely because it acutely represents an exaggerated here and now.