Disappointing dystopia

I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.
I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.

Elysium has so much going for it. A $115 million budget, a brilliant young director, an Oscar-winning cast, the best digital effects available, and a sharp sociopolitical plot. Last week, I sat in my scratchy chair at the Kips Bay theater, giddy with anticipation. But about halfway through the movie, my enthusiasm waned. Why? Because the movie doesn’t live up to its promise. It doesn’t even come close. Granted, director Neill Blomkamp gave himself a tall order to fill, and he seems to be filling it nicely up until the moment that — spoiler alert — William Fichtner’s defense contractor character dies. Then things start falling apart.

See this? This shouldn't have been so dull.
This shouldn’t have been so dull.

Here’s my rough diagnosis of what went wrong:

  1. The sociopolitical satire falls flat on its face. The initial set up is fantastic. The year is 2154, and a privileged few live on a space station circling above earth, while the rest of humanity live on poverty-stricken, disease-ridden earth. The conceit basically takes our society’s growing angst about the 1% and whips it up into a fantastical but not implausible extreme. That’s great, but the set up is all that we get. Where are the revolutionaries who want to overthrow the system? There are none. Why is it that Matt Damon’s character couldn’t care less about any of this and only wants to invade Elysium to 1) cure himself of radiation poisoning and 2) make sure his childhood sweetheart doesn’t think too badly of him? There’s no reason for his apathy throughout the entire film — in fact, it does a great disservice to it. Three quarters of the way in, I realized that I had no one to root for. Blomkamp spends a lot of minutes trying to position Damon’s character Max as a struggling everyman who unwittingly turns into the revolutionary that he was born to be (he even throws in a prescient nun who tells Max this as a little boy). But the second half of the equation never fully manifests, and that was disappointing. The socioeconomic satire that seemed so riveting in trailers dissolves into petty inter-fighting among various ragtag groups, which was confusing thematically, perplexing logistically, and, honestly, just plain boring.

    Not her best.
    Not her best.
  2. Jodie Foster is misused and, frankly, kind of weird in this movie. Foster is one of my favorite actresses of all time. I’ve seen Contact about ten billion times, and the idea of watching her in another blockbuster sci-fi flick (as a villain this time!) was thrilling beyond words. I kept waiting for her show-stopping speech defending Elysium’s way of life over the underprivileged masses stuck on earth. (“Why do you get everything, and I get nothing?” a tear-streaked Damon would demand. “Because we do,” she would respond icily.) But it never came. Sure, she looked great strutting around the space station with her steely clothes and attitude, but nothing came of it. Spoiler alert: she disappears well before the end and is effectively replaced by a far less interesting villain. This made no sense to me whatsoever. Why dispose of your symbolic antagonist so cavalierly? Why, come to think of it, would you prevent your protagonist and antagonist from ever meeting? That’s right — Damon and Foster come face to face zero times. Sure, I’m all for subverting viewers’ expectations in clever ways, but this felt bungled. Also, what’s with Foster’s pseudo-British accent? People in my theater were laughing.
  3. We never find out much about Elysium itself. Is it a mere coincidence that a fabricated paradise bears the name of the ancient Greek afterlife? It might as well be, since the movie does next to nothing to show us a side of the glittering Stanford torus that isn’t two dimensional (if you’ll pardon the pun). Apart from flashes of sloping lawns and blue pools and fleeting glimpses of a party at the defense minister’s pad, Blomkamp offers us few hints of what it’s like to live there. What do these elite Elysium citizens have that earthlings don’t, aside from Versace medical pods? Is life there perfect, or is it invariable, tedious, deadening even, as its name suggests? Who can afford a ticket and what does it cost? How did it come to be in the first place? All of these questions probably should have been answered or at least alluded to in the movie, but they weren’t.

In summary, Elysium offers plenty of teasers, but little follow-through. Full disclosure: I have not finished District 9, but I look forward to finishing it soon to see what Blomkamp can create when he’s at his best.

Read the New York Times and New Yorker reviews for far more positive takes on Elysium than mine.