Elysium (review)

Sharlto Copley should've been second billed.

Elysium (2013) is Neill Blomkamp's (District 9) newest sci-fi romp and was at the very top of my list of movies I wanted to see in theaters last night. I couldn't help liking District 9 despite its flaws and I was excited to see where the director would go with his next effort. While Elysium is far from perfect, it was definitely very fun and didn't disappoint even in the face of my moderately high expectations.

By the year 2154 the Earth's richest inhabitants have fled the overpopulated and disease ridden planet to live on a space station (named Elysium) designed to replicate their comfortable way of life. While the rich lounge in paradise the rest are left in the squalor of unfair working conditions and poor medical services that seem to define life on Earth (if you know me well enough you can already tell one of the reasons I liked this movie). Max (Matt Damon) is an industrial worker who grew up on Earth and has been in and out of trouble since he was little (ironically he helps build the very policing robots that abuse him). There's an accident at the factory (involving a very unsympathetic supervisor) and Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and told he has five days to live (although he could be cured if he made it to Elysium).

Max goes to his old criminal friend Spider (Wagner Moura) with his dilemma and Spider sets him up with his awesome exoskeleton and a mission which, if he succeeds, will grant him passage to Elysium. When politicians on Elysium get involved, Delacourt (Jodie Foster doing a really annoying sort of posh, high-class accent) activates covert military agent Kruger (an almost scene-stealing Sharlto Copley) to stop them. As it turns out, the data which Max stole on his mission could grant him access to the Elysium mainframe and has the capability to completely reorganize the power structure on Elysium. While Max wants to make his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her daughter citizens of Elysium (granting them access to better medication), Kruger just wants power and sees his opportunity to take control of Elysium.

I just loved this movie's style.

So first off, Elysium works pretty well at the level of form. Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley are amazing in the leading roles and while I didn't like the voice Jodie Foster chose she's certainly not enough to ruin the movie. Wagner Moura, Alice Braga, and William Fichtner (as a corrupt capitalist CEO) all stood out as excellent supporting characters. More than anything else, however, the visual style was what struck me most. The vehicles remind me of this car from Escape from New York (although admittedly more modern) which is definitely a compliment if you don't know what kind of movies I like yet. The spaceships and the Elysium space station look beautiful, Damon's exoskeleton is both awesome and gruesome, and the contrast between Elysium and Earth is simply fantastic. If anything, the movie's a little more violent than necessary (the violence doesn't seem to be making a point all of the time), but I found it enjoyable rather than distasteful.

(Spoilers begin here)

I may have come for the style, but I stayed for the themes. While Elysium doesn't really bring anything new to the table in terms of sci-fi substance, it hits on quite a few of my favorite points. The first and most obvious is established right as the movie begins, with on-screen text explaining the class separation between Earth and Elysium. The entire movie is founded on the notion of class struggle, something that is too often dismissed as hypothetical or make-believe. Although Elysium does a good job of foregrounding the problem of class conflict, its solution is far too utopian. At the end of the movie, Spider basically flips a switch and eliminates all class difference, providing proper medical treatment to those on Earth who need it. It was definitely an enjoyable fantasy for me, but nothing more than precisely that: a fantasy. Of course, that's to be expected with science fiction I guess.

The mise-en-scene of Elysium (as opposed to the dirtier Earth)

From Marx and economic/political thematic analysis we go to my other favorite: Lacan and psychoanalysis. This one's a two-parter. First off, Max's mother figure teaches him an important lesson about home. She sees his childhood admiration of Elysium's beauty and shows him a picture of what Earth looks like from space, telling him to never forget where he came from. As a kid, Max dismisses the advice. Having turned Elysium into a fantasmatic object of desire (objet a), he doesn't understand how Earth could possibly be better than Elysium. After he spends some time on Elysium and learns how corrupt it is, he stares out a window at Earth and realizes what he couldn't as a child: the grass is always greener. This is a simple message, but one I never seem to get tired of.

The final theme I want to discuss is self-sacrifice, something I went into in depth in my analysis of The Prestige. My basic theory is that there are two kinds of self-sacrifice: the kind that is a means to another end (usually to the construction of an identity or self-preservation) and the kind that is an end in itself (or selfless self-sacrifice). Max begins with the former. He accepts a seemingly suicidal mission because it's the only option for self preservation he has left (if he refuses he'll die of radiation poisoning). He makes a sacrifice in order to survive, pure and simple. Max ends the film with the latter. Max is smuggling information in his head which can turn every Earth citizen into an Elysium citizen (the utopian switch-flipping I mentioned earlier), but the process of extracting it will kill him. In order to save the population of Earth from oppression, Max must sacrifice himself.


  1. Also check out my friend Dan's review here: http://danielspicer.blogspot.com/2013/08/elysium-reviewed-cinema-screening.html

  2. I kinda had a feeling we would agree on this (especially after your 'sci-fi week' articles, which represented a diverse taste in sci-fi with messages attached). I gave 'District 9' top marks, and I think 'Elysium' is worthy of high praise as well. I liked the straightforward simplicity of the plot, even if it's too simple at the end 'with the flicking of the switch' as you say. I also agree that Kruger was a great villain. I'll probably buy the soundtrack soon because I enjoyed the music too. I just don't know why there aren't more movies like this one released at the cinema, instead of crap comedies.

    1. Yeah I also loved District 9, and Sharlto Copley as Kruger was so great. There definitely need to be more straightforward simple sci-fis like this in theaters. Agree on all counts.


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