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Elysium: Hitting the Easy Button on a Complicated Issue

August 19, 2013

Elysium movie poster

Neill Blomkamp burst onto the movie scene with his science fiction classic District 9. The 2009 movie was exhilarating (Silenced a sold out Miami theater for two hours) and a bona fide box office hit ($210 worldwide on a $30 million budget).  With his first film Blomkamp become a fresh presence on the burgeoning science fiction scene spearheaded by Duncan Jones, Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards and Shane Caruth.

District 9 was a breath of fresh air that didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. Elysium is a different story. It hits you over the head with its interstellar country clubs, lack of universal healthcare and never-ending desolation that looks like Rio’s slums ad nauseam. Blomkamp’s budget has grown but the subtlety has shrunk. The suspense, originality and clear voice are muddled with the corporate budget and nods to the mainstream. Everything is bigger including the action involving Sharlto Copley’s wonderfully murderous agent who blows people up spectacularly. It all resorts to beautiful action pieces that look like every other set piece in Wolverine, Star Trek and World War Z. The biggest difference is that dude’s get blown up REAL good in Elysium (Think flare gun death scene in The Last Stand but much more practical and visceral).

Elysium tells the story of a diseased and dirty 2154 earth that is loaded with tattoos, graffiti and Matt Damon. Damon is an ex-con who is trying to become an upstanding citizen. He works at a factory, is respected in the neighborhood and finally reconnects with his childhood friend/crush. However, one fateful day he is blasted with radiation and given five days to live. Thus, he gets a badass robot suit medically attached to him and decides to take Elysium by force. thwarting him is the steely Jodie Foster who is all calves and dueling accents.

The following 90 minutes are a barrage of kiddie pool deep themes, explosive action and many polo shirts. Elysium is an idyllic world where people hang out in their backyards and engage in barbecues. They are the worlds .001% and occasionally have to deal with the nuisance of stowaways from earth curing themselves in their healing machines (think Prometheus without the alien cesarium). Blomkamp obviously has a bone to pick with the 1% but his views seem limited to a small scope instead of universally. The worst thing Elysium does is make things easy and oversimplified. Economic oppression and class systems are things that cannot be easily solved by a man in a robot suit. District 9 dealt with a very specific section of the world whereas Elysium has a narrow view of a huge issue.  The ending while compassionate is naive and overly simplified which is disappointing because I loved the ending of District 9. The casting of Matt Damon raises some questions as well. Grantland’s Wesley Morris summed up his review with this neat quote:

If you’re TriStar Pictures, some delicacy might be in order. Maybe you don’t want your socioeconomic-justice action blockbuster to pit a Braga or Luna or Kerry Washington or Will Smith alone against Planet Country Club. You don’t want your first movie out of the gate to look like a race riot. But you can’t help but wonder whether some people will see Damon anointed the chosen one while surrounded by indigent, affronted, capable brown people and think, We don’t need another hero.

Elysium is a jack of all trades but master of nothing. It doesn’t have the laser pointed low budget focus of District 9 and waters down it’s message for the mainstream. I feel like District 9 was the hit foreign film and Elysium is the American remake.

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