So, here’s my basic problem with so many “message” movies: the message becomes stretched so far, it’s hard to tie it to any kind of current reality. Remember The Sixth Day, Schwarzenegger’s anti-cloning movie? It was so ridiculous that it was no longer about cloning, it was about memory transfer. And, also, the clone was really nice, so I couldn’t be too down on the cloning in the first place.
Elysium, the newest film from Neil “District 9” Blomkamp is a screed against elitism and limited access to health care. In this utopic/dystopic future, the 1% (or, really, probably the .0001%) have retreated to an idyllic orbital habitat where they live in, seemingly, constant leisure, unless they’re busy grinding the bones of the poor for profit or blowing them out of the sky. The rest of humanity teems on the surface of Earth where they are subjugated by robot policemen and automated parole officers.
On Elysium, every household is equipped with a medical device that can fix any physical problem. On Earth, the hospitals are overrun with ill and damaged people. They’re so desperate, they pile into shuttle craft, fly up to Elysium, land, run into someone’s mansion, just so they can cure their kid, even though they might get killed, and will certainly get captured and imprisoned.
The movie fails to work because it tries to make this all an extension of current reality, while making the divisions so incredibly stark that they shift to abstraction. If the populace is so desperate that they’re invading your enclave, wouldn’t you throw them a bone and give them a few of these magic healing beds? It’s not like you’re running low, if they are in every fricking house on Elysium. Maybe they’re expensive, but if you give one to every major hospital? Wouldn’t that ease the pressure pretty significantly?
The Elysium “citizens” are all total d-bags. Jodie Foster, the Director of Security, is the one shooting sick kids out of the sky, hiring insane mercenaries (Sharlo Copley) for her dirty work, and conspiring with a miltiary/industrial a-hole (William Fichtner) to actually overthrow the government of the current President (Faran Tahir), who responds to Foster’s mass murder by saying, essentially, “That’s some bad PR. Don’t do it again, please.”
The Earth citizens are all super nice, whether they’re a nurse with a sick kid (Alice Braga), or a kid who swipes cars (Diego Luna), or even a criminal mastermind who wants to kidnap a rich guy so he can steal all the valuable info out of his head (Wagner Moura). The central character is Max, played by Matt Damon. He’s a former criminal, but he’s doing his best now to make good, even to the point of putting his life at risk for his job… which, of course, leads to him getting microwaved to death. There’s a scene where the owner of the company (the Fichtner character) requests that Max be removed from the infirmary because he doesn’t want to replace the sheets. Okay, that’s just not realistic. That’s taking villainy to a place of near parody. It’s that kind of thing that bounces me right out of the film.
There are some good things about this film. The production design is stellar. Every frame of this film could be used as the cover of a science fiction novel. Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley are both excellent. But nothing else really works for me. I’ll continue by spoiling the story, if you’re interested.
Foster’s plan is to get Fichtner, whose company built Elysium, to write her a reboot program that will allow her to hijack the station’s computer system and install herself as president. This is ridiculous. It’s like saying that if I steal Barack Obama’s laptop, I’m President of the US. It’s sort of implied that since all service work on Elysium is done by robot, that Foster would have a completely loyal and basically unstoppable police force available for her coup. But still, this isn’t a military station. It’s a gated community, for cripes sake. Everyone there is a billionaire. What does stealing the keys to the station really get you?
But this plot point is hammered home throughout the film. The only moment that it feels interesting is when Copley’s madman decides that he wants to be president. Ha! That I loved.
Another problem with the story is that it’s trying to be this epic, global tale of the super-rich escaping (sort of the liberal’s version of Atlas Shrugged), but the only part of Earth we ever see, or hear about, is Los Angeles. So I’m left wondering, is LA’s horrible state representative of the entire planet? If so, why aren’t there 50 criminal masterminds sending shuttles up to invade Elysium? Also, if sending shuttles up is, like, a regular thing, why does Foster have to activate her henchman on the planet to shoot them down? Also, why does the henchman happen to live in the one city that sends up shuttles?
A ham-handed civics lesson with some terrible (Foster) or simply boring (Braga) performances and a poorly thought out world needs more than pretty visuals to get a thumbs up from me.