Director Neill Blomkamp understands that a good science fiction film is made by its social commentary. After all, he directed District 9, one of the better sci-fi films in the last decade, combining thrilling action with in-depth commentary on the film’s social tensions.
With the success of District 9, Blomkamp brings high expectations in his latest feature Elysium. In a future crippled with overpopulation, the rich live in the space colony Elysium while the poor suffer on the ruined planet below. Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker who dreams of living in Elysium, suffers radiation poisoning and is given five days to live. In the search to get a cure, Max becomes an unwitting hero in the destruction of the social hierarchy between Elysium and Earth. While this film shows promise, social commentary is rushed trying to analyze too much in two hours. Audiences are only given a small glimpse in a clearly nuanced world.
Before watching the film, I glanced at a book of Elysium conceptual art. Compiled by Mark Salisbury, the book offers a detailed portrayal of Blomkamp’s universe, including technology, character motivations, and a description of the film’s social tensions. It is a fascinating read to build audience expectations. These expectations carry into the beginning of the film. In the first shots, the camera sweeps over a ruined Earth and then rises toward Elysium. The camera moves with the rotation of Elysium, bringing to mind Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. After these first few minutes, this poignancy is lost in the rapid pace of the film. Many issues arise in the world of Elysium: social breakdown, lack of resources, and the use of pervasive technology. Instead of choosing a couple of these themes to analyze thoroughly, Blomkamp cursorily visits all these issues. Clues to this world are dropped in quick lines of dialogue, vanishing before audiences can digest the information. Key exposition is rushed in order to get to the action. The film never really gives us a reason to care about this social struggle. Audiences are left understanding the how of this world, but not the why.
This rushed analysis is also detrimental to the film’s character development. Potentially interesting characters are reduced to stale archetypes. You have Max as the savior, Delacourt (Jodie Foster) as the villain fighting to maintain Elysium’s pristine image, and Kruger (Sharlto Copley) as the rogue assassin. Pretty formulaic characters for a complex world. The film attempts to give these characters depth, but it’s ambiguous at best. A prime example is the character of Julio (Diego Luna). Throughout most of the film he is built up as the stereotypical drug runner and black marketer, but suddenly he emerges as an anarchist poised to take down Elysium. This character change is treated as heroic, but it is a mystery where his motivations come from. By the end of the film, audiences are expected to rally behind Julio even though he has given us no reason to do so beforehand. Lack of character sympathy causes audiences to be disconnected from the reality of the film, watering down our overall enjoyment.
Like many films this summer, Elysium failed to live up to the hype. Through rushed analysis, the book is forced shut on Blomkamp’s world.