'Elysium' Has a Ton of Underutilized Ideas

Elysium's ambitions are undeniable. It's just a shame the same can't be said for the plot or characters.


Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Diego Luna
Distributor: Sony
Rated: R
Year: 2013
Release date: 2013-12-17

Director Neill Blomkamp is in a bit of a rough patch, suffering from a rare disorder known as "auteur's trap" and, sadly, perhaps it's inevitable.

When 2009's District 9 came out, it was unlike most any other sci-fi film we had seen: an allegorical class structure critique that brazenly (and seamlessly) transitioned from full-bore documentary-style filmmaking into big-budget action fare, and more than that, it did all these things with panache, serving up a healthy "wow" factor while also remaining grounded in a solid emotional conceit. District 9 was a huge success, was deservedly nominated for a good share of Oscars, and made the world wonder what Blomkamp, the man whom Peter Jackson insisted would do a great job with tackling a Halo movie (despite the studio balking at giving a tentpole to a guy who hadn't made a full-length yet), would set his sights on next.

Thus, with big-name stars like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in the marquee, Elysium seemed like a surefire bet for all involved: Blomkamp would have a larger canvas to work his magic upon, and the world couldn't wait to see what he was going to accomplish. While Elysium isn't a bad film, audiences were a bit shocked by the fact that after a project as out-and-out visionary as District 9, not only did its follow-up rehash a lot of the same tropes as before, but after the unconventional means that District 9 got to its point, Elysium relies on clichés to get its message across, and film suffers because of it.

Elysium's plot revolves around class warfare, as the rich and well-to-do have used their considerable means to escape to a gigantic rotating space station named Elysium, filled with the nicest views and the most advanced in medical technology, capable of reconstructing wounds or curing cancer in less than a minute. In a domineering Secretary of Defense role, Delacourt (Foster) keeps Elysium safe from numerous boarding attempts by stray refugees from Earth, which has become akin to a ravaged third world nation.

One of Earth's humble civilians is Max (Damon), trying to make a clean living after years of stealing cars and other various criminal activities. One day, after a work accident that borders on the comical ("If you don't fix that door jam, I'll find someone who will!" is basically what his factory foreman shouts to Max), Max only has a few days left to live, so decides to make one last mission to get to Elysium, carrying with him the daughter of the woman he has known ever since he was a little boy, hoping she can use Elysium's machinery to fix her medical ailment.

What hurts Elysium the most isn't the story, which by itself isn't all that bad. No, what ultimately sinks Elysium's weighty concepts is the very, very, very broadly-defined characters that Blomkamp has written. While Max's arc is only satisfying due to the fact that it adheres to every single underdog action-hero archetype there is, it's Jodie Foster's Delacourt that is absent of any real motivation, depth, or actual personality. Her intention is the film is "to get more power" and nothing else. Thus, when she deals with the morally conflicted business owner John Carlyle (the always reliable William Fichtner) or the worried President of Elysium (the great Faran Tahir), those interactions seem to hold weight and meaning, as the characters she's talking to have personalities and ideas all their own.

Jodie Foster as Delacourt.

Sometimes, though, the actor is the one who brings the personality to the character, going above and beyond what a thin script would provide. Shalrto Copley, Blomkamp's longtime friend and star of District 9, has really been showing how much of a chameleon he is as an actor, going from District 9 to The A-Team to his role here, where he plays a psychologically unstable bounty-hunter named Kruger who not only tries to hunt down Max with a rabid bloodlust, but also has his own need for power, and proceeds to try to become ruler of Elysium during a maniacal military coup later on.

His character, again, is thinly defined, but Copley gives Kruger all the raging id he could possibly find, obsessed only with his job and his own self, regardless of who or what gets in the way. He is responsible for some of the best action sequences in the film, and, in many ways, feels more developed than Delacourt, although, admittedly, that in itself is not a hard bar to pass.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Elysium isn't its broadly drawn characters or stereotypical plot, no. What's most maddening about it is how Blomkamp has filled this movie with a ton of great ideas, nearly all of which are vastly underutilized. The weapons he develops, just as with District 9, are just plain fun to watch as they make things blow up, and the various robots that go about policing the various cities are very functional, gloriously impersonal, and one of the film's more clearly-developed ideas.

The best scene in the whole movie, however, might very well be the one that's alluded to so frequently in the trailers, when Max has to go and plead his case before a robotic parole officer, stationary and devoid of any nuance, and the various interpretive issues that creates. It's a great idea applied to a great scene, and one that doesn't really afford itself the chance to be revisited. That's a shame, because even with all of Elysium's conventional Hollywood bluster, his most inventive concepts still stand out.

The various extras in the Blu-ray, however, are as self-important as behind-the-scenes featurettes can get. While Matt Damon is fun to watch as he goofs about on set, joking with the actors during filming, it's the various producers that drone on and on about how good a project this is, the chills they get during filming, the fact that you aren't always lucky enough to have both a great director and great script and here they have both, etc. It's mindless navel-gazing, and although a few facts prove entertaining -- mainly that Blomkamp hired the composer after seeing a YouTube clip and commissioned him for the full film then and there; the fact that (spoiler alert) this is the first time in history that Jodie Foster gets killed on camera -- these nuggets of info aren't by themselves fascinating enough to be worth recommending.

There is still a lot to like and appreciate with Elysium, especially its action sequences, but even those would be made better by a single facet: we'd be more invested if we cared about what the characters. The film's ambitions are undeniable, it's just a shame the same can't be said for the plot or characters.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.