Sometimes, you just have to accept what a film is telling you. Questioning it will inevitably lead to disappointment. Even a minor question about a character shift can unravel an entire film. Elysium takes place in a beautifully-realized future. Earth is overpopulated without nearly enough resources to take care of everyone. The richest of the rich live in a space station with an artificially maintained atmosphere of perfect landscaping and medical pods that cure all ailments; everyone else lives on the barren earth, toiling in mindless jobs in the hopes of building a better life for themselves some day on Elysium.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp follows up his blockbuster, Academy Award-nominated sci-fi epic District 9 with another tale of the haves and have-nots in the future. In Elysium, humanity has merged into a much more connected species, with various languages--French, Spanish, English, perhaps Africaans and Portuguese, as well--blended into a universal tongue. It's a clever conceit that goes a long way to establish the dystopia/utopia divide Blomkamp is after.
Like District 9, Elysium has a distinctive visual style filled with flourishes of wild sci-fi technology. Humans are combined with robotic exoskeletons to become super-soldiers. Police investigations can be conducted entirely with drones and elaborate scanner systems. Data can be shared through computer hookups in the brain and entire bodies can be restored so long as the brain is intact.
The world of Elysium is the most compelling aspect of the film because the balance between new technology and recognizable humanity. It feels like this could actually happen.
Then you start to look at the realities of the story and it begins to fall apart. Elysium holds up for much of its running time. A reformed criminal held down by his past is given an accidental death sentence when the safeguards at his manufacturing job fail, exposing him to massive radiation poison. Now he has to go back to his former partner in crime for one last chance at a ticket to Elysium and the guarantee of life-saving medical care.
Blomkamp focuses entirely on this storyline. There are bubbles of other plots--the man meets his childhood love interest by chance, the defense secretary at Elysium is hungry for more power--but everything comes down to that one man.
Matt Damon crafts Max with a subtle hand that works wonders. There's an undercurrent of rage and danger that sells the transformation into mechanized cyber-vigilante perfectly. Max is a flawed but likable character because Damon refuses to fully embrace the near-Larry Stu writing.
The last act is where the logic starts to fall apart. It starts small. A major supporting character radically shifts motivation with no explanation. Then the other little details start to wear on you. If everything you knew about that one character was wrong (or was it?), what's actually holding this have vs have not society together? It's like there's a missing scene that could justify everything that starts to seem ridiculous. One more scene with that character to create an arc, not an unjustified turnaround, could have saved Elysium from scrutiny.
A good big budget sci-fi film is hard to find. It's a genre that requires the audience to buy what is being sold in world building, story, characters, and special effects. Elysium comes frustratingly close to pulling it all together. If you just accept everything at face value, it's an entertaining diversion. There are just so many of those little moments to give you pause in the last 20 minutes that you might struggle to go along for the ride.
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