Does anyone remember the sense of anticipation that science fiction fans felt back in April? A new Star Trek movie was a mere month away. Will Smith was bringing us a big budget sci-fi adventure in June with After Earth. Then, Guillermo del Toro was serving up his hybrid of Japanese monster movies and American science fiction in Pacific Rim. And last, but definitely not least, Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame was closing out the tentpole summer with Elysium.
And now that the dust has settled and the last spaceship has exploded, we are left with the wreckage of Sci-Fi Summer 2013. It’s somehow fitting that the only summer sci-fi movie I had never heard of was the best of the season – Europa Report. And the second-best wasn’t actually released in the summer – Oblivion. What went wrong? Well, that would take about a half-dozen separate reviews and thousands of words to sort out, so I’ll restrict my comments to Neill Blomkamp’s R-rated sci-fi adventure that is full of action and has no discernable point.
In Elysium, Matt Damon plays Max, an underachieving orphan who is destined for great things. How do we know that Max will save humanity? Because a nun at his orphanage tells him that he will be a great man one day, and everyone knows that nuns at orphanages are always right. Max lives on a desolate, polluted Earth in 2154. As he literally slaves away in a factory, the uber-rich attend cocktail parties and sun themselves by the pool all day on Elysium, a man-made paradise in space. How did the people on Elysium become so wealthy? I’m not sure because none of them seem to hit a lick of work, but I guess working for your millions has been eliminated by 2154 along with Earth’s atmosphere.
When Max is accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work, he decides to infiltrate Elysium to gain access to their super-funky medical beds that can cure all illnesses including Max’s radiation sickness. (I’ll admit that watching someone lying in a tanning bed to get rid of cancer was ironic fun.) Standing in Max’s way are Elysium sleeper agent Kruger played by Sharlito Copley, the acting highlight of the film, and Defense Minister Delacourt played by Jodie Foster in what might be the single worst performance of 2013. After being harnessed to a metal exo-skeleton to increase his strength and endurance, Max becomes a one-man slave revolt, and the mayhem begins.
The mainstream media has been full of stories about the “politically-charged” and “heavy-handed” storytelling in Elysium. Really? Hasn’t an evil corporation been the villain in every other science fiction film from Blade Runner and Terminator to Alien 2 and all the films in the Resident Evil franchise. Well, then how about the novelty of evil sci-fi governments? Uh, anyone ever heard of The Empire in a little film called Star Wars. Just about every government in a science fiction movie is an oppressive one. And class warfare has been a science fiction trope since the inception of the genre. I’m sorry to report that there’s nothing new here. It’s essentially the slaves versus the ruling class. It’s just another film about a rebellion (oops, Star Wars again). It’s basically just Sparticus in Space, so don’t get your togas in a bunch worrying about any political subtext.
Although the story is ludicrous and ultimately serves only as a justification to make things go “boom”, the look of the film is amazing. Blomkamp and his technical team manage to give the future an organic, lived-in look like no other recent sci-fi film. Instead of shiny, glossy spaceships zipping around a world that is hardly recognizable, this Earth of 2154 has a gritty, realistic look that gives the action sequences some real weight. Max’s one-on-ones with Kruger belong in the Showdown Hall of Fame, but there is no real emotional center to the film. You won’t really care whether good or evil triumphs. It just looks really cool.
In addition to a poor story, there is no villain to anchor the film. Defense Minister Delacourt is just some nameless, faceless bureaucrat who wants to thwart Max because that’s what the script needs her to do. She’s as menacing as the woman at the DMV who sends you to the back of the line. Delacourt has no discernible motivations for her actions, and no backstory that makes her character sympathetic, reprehensible or something in between. Jodie Foster, sporting some kind of British/German/who-knows what accent, is lifeless in the role. I thought at one point her face would be ripped off, and the audience would see that she’s actually an android and that would explain her (uh, forgive me) robotic performance.
For decades, the big screen was the only place you could find the “fantastical genres” – science fiction, fantasy and horror. Today, they are staples of the small screen. With Battlestar Galactica, Falling Skies, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and numerous others as competition, filmmakers have a difficult time creating a fully-realized world with well-rounded characters and a compelling plot all in a span of 120 minutes when fans have become used to being immersed in other universes and worlds for dozens of hours at a time. Given the huge budgets of these films, big screen sci-fi still excels at bringing us the spectacle within the genre, and Elysium succeeds on that level. It simply fails at everything else.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.