Elysium is a good film that falls short of being great. The film looks wonderful, is anchored by a solid Matt Damon performance, and has lofty ambitions. On the flip side it is hampered by a lackluster script, illogical plot twists, and one truly horrible performance from Jodie Foster. Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp seems to want Elysium to address every social ill known to man, but ultimately it bites off more social commentary than it can chew.
The believability of the plot is determined by your level of cynicism. In the future the divide between the haves and have-nots has reached interstellar proportions. The wealthy and affluent have developed a space station utopia where life is all lounging by the pool and dinner parties. The station is called Elysium and is run by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who is in charge of defense. Earth below has devolved into a slum planet with famine, poverty, and disease raging. On Elysium there is a medical bed that is capable of curing any and all illness or disease, but only citizens of Elysium have access to these beds.
Matt Damon’s Max lives on Earth and has dreams of making it to Elysium someday. He has had brushes with the law in the past and has a history of incarceration. As the film begins Max is, of course, trying to stay on the straight path by working a job making robots that then police the citizens. An accident at the factory bestows radiation poisoning on Max giving him five days to live. One of those fancy medical beds could fix Max right up, but, wouldn’t you know, those darn Elysiums’ don’t allow illegal immigrants onto their turf. Max and an acquaintance named Spider hatch a plan to steal information of value that will allow Max to get on Elysium and get access to medical help. Max is obviously weak from the radiation so Spider sets him up with a metal exoskeleton which is surgically attached to his body. That happens to come in handy later. The later half of the movie is an extended chase scene between Max and a mercenary hired by Delacourt to alleviate the problem. This half is where the film falls apart and the social commentary is abandoned in favor of sci-fi shootouts and robotically enhanced fist fights.
Neill Blomkamp directed the immensely enjoyable District 9 and has built a fair amount of anticipation around his follow-up. While District 9 was a sci-fi parable about apartheid, Elysium seems to want to tackle wage inequality, social classes, illegal immigration, and access to healthcare all in the same plot. His sci-fi vision is intact, but his screenwriting duties could use some polish. District 9 had a documentary feel which allowed any plot or dialogue problems to be hidden. Elysium does not have that luxury and the dialogue feels forced. The majority of the film’s flaws rest in the script. The entire society on Elysium is not explained so the way the government is run doesn’t make sense. Characters are not given realistic dialogue to advance the plot and sometimes feel like exposition dumps. At least one character was completely contrived and actually hindered the story seeing as how she existed solely as a plot point. Finally, the second half of the film hinges on a character’s action that is so incomprehensible that I was completely taken out of the film in bafflement.
Matt Damon leads the film with an assurance that he is still an everyman’s action hero. He brings warmth to a role that is written cold and elevates those around him. Jodie Foster stands in direct contrast to Damon’s performance. She is awful in this film. Foster plays Delacourt with an accent from who knows where and there are times when it seems as if the accent is fumbling her acting. It’s as if she was concentrating so hard on getting that accent right that she forgot she was supposed to be emoting as well. There were also numerous times throughout the film that her lines didn’t match up with her lips. I’m not sure if that was a problem with my screening or not, but it didn’t happen with any of the other actors. In any case, that fault doesn’t lie with Foster. I’ve liked Jodie Foster for a long time and I was quite surprised at the atrociousness that is this performance.
District 9’s Sharlto Copley also makes a supporting turn as the vile mercenary in charge of tracking Max down on Earth and bringing him to Elysium. Copley stands out in this film and wears his griminess with pride. He was fun to watch even when his character made no sense whatsoever.
It seems as if I’m being unduly hard on this film. In actuality this film is really two films in one and I’m only being hard on one of them. The first half is quite good and I felt for Max and the hardships he was facing. The second half could have been scored to John Williams’ Superman theme. There is so much social commentary ripe for an excellent drama that it’s a shame the film ends up being an action movie instead.