The Dual World of ‘Elysium’

Imagine a world where Earth is flooded with catastrophes and only a few are selected to be on a Noah’s Ark hovering above those who suffer. In the vein of Neill Blomkamp’s breakout science fiction/action film, “District 9,” “Elysium” brings that idea to life.

The film promises yet another revolution in a futuristic dystopian Earth. But unfortunately for Blomkamp, “Elysium” doesn’t match the colossal success of “District 9” due to its muddled plots, excessive violent scenes and lack of character depth.

Set in the year 2154, “Elysium” is named after a blazing, man-made space station orbiting an overpopulated, polluted and poverty-stricken Earth. It seems as if the whole world dissolves, and the only two countries to exist in this futuristic time are Elysium and Earth. Elysium is home to the incredibly wealthy, where diseases and catastrophes simply don’t exist.

There, most Elysian dwellers live in modern mansions with shimmering swimming pools and enjoy a nearly magical health care system: everyone owns a MedBay machine, a pod that can instantly cure any sickness or injuries. This gated paradise is protected by Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, “The Silence of the Lambs”), the Secretary of Defense, who aims to prevent Earthlings from entering Elysium. She ruthlessly shoots down any spaceships attempting to make it across the border. Those who make it through are immediately “deported.” Much to Delacourt’s dismay, the President of Elysium asks her to loosen her iron grip. Disliking the fact that her power is threatened, Delacourt plots a revolution of her own by asking John Carlyle (William Fichtner, “The Lone Ranger”), the writer of Elysium’s core control system, to reboot Elysium’s computer and install Delacourt as the unimpeded president of Elysium.

Back on Earth, we encounter Max De Costa (Matt Damon, “Good Will Hunting”), an ex-convict who is now a factory worker for Carlyle. After being exposed to a fatal dosage of radiation at work, De Costa faces the cruel nature of his society, where social class tension is the only thing that keeps him from getting proper medical care.

Determined to beat his fate; De Costa agrees to be part of a scheme set up by Spider (Wagner Moura, “Father’s Chair”), head of a local gang, to enter Elysium. Spider provides him with an exosuit that turns him into a hybrid, half-droid half-human.

Using this exosuit, De Costa can hijack brain data from a citizen of Elysium and its heavy security system. Max selects his former boss, Carlyle, for this purpose. Little does he know that Carlyle has the entire core control system of Elysium saved in his brain. Upon learning that Spider’s mission has interrupted her plans, the cold-blooded Delacourt sends her sadistic sleeper agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley, “District 9”), to catch Max retrieve the data.

While Max is on the run from Kruger, he reconnects with his childhood friend, a nurse named Frey (Alice Braga, “I Am Legend”). Frey asks him to bring her daughter, who’s in the final stages of leukemia, to Elysium. Frey’s character serves as a symbol for good and a mother figure in Blomkamp’s story, though she does very little to gain empathy from the audience. We soon learn that Delacourt’s hunger for power relinquishes rather quickly after she is betrayed and wounded by her own man, Kruger. She simply just gives up rather than fights and tries to survive.

There is a big gap in the development of her character in this movie. Blomkamp constructs her to be ruthless and power-driven from the beginning. Yet he takes her out of the picture so easily that she hardly seems to be the true villain of this movie.

The same is to say about other characters in this movie. Max is hardly the unsung hero who yearns for social equality: he simply wants a cure for himself, and Frey wants the same thing for her daughter. Mishaps happen and they become the underdogs to be hunted. The revolution that they’ve started is just a result from a string of insignificant incidents. There remains a certain emptiness within each character that makes it difficult for the audience to truly understand and care for them.

In “Elysium,” Blomkamp remains a strong director despite his failure as a writer. In the scene where Kruger’s face is grotesquely deformed by a grenade, he shows how the human body can be easily twisted, blasted and burn. Human bodies seem rather weak and vulnerable in a world run by machines, robots and heavy weapons.

“Elysium” simply crumbles under the weight of its own ambition. Though it tries to tackle big issues of race, war and inequality, the film lacks the substance to stand above the rest in the dystopian film genre.

— By Uyen Hoang