It's been a summer of big budget flops, most with the normal array of explosions, CGI monsters and robots, explosions, sequels/reboots, explosions, drunken buddy humor, and, oh yes... explosions. I've been waiting all summer for a science fiction movie that actually has a plot and characters and I've sort of found it in Elysium. Granted, there are the requisite number of explosions (let's not be too crazy), but this movie has a heck of a lot more going for it than your average summer sci-fi flick. It's still too early to say how well it will ultimately perform at the box office, but current numbers aren't very exciting.
The movie is set in 2154. While the rich live in a paradisaical space station, Elysium, where all illnesses and injuries are easily cured, everyone else remains on a terribly polluted and crime-ridden Earth. Max (Matt Damon) is a former criminal who's trying to clean up his act while working in a factory that makes police droids. When a workplace accident leaves him slowly dying of radiation poisoning, he agrees to go on a mission to steal data from a citizen of Elysium in exchange for a ticket to Elysium - his one chance to survive. There are a lot of twists and turns, many of them legitimately unexpected, and the ending manages to be both predictable and unforeseen.
Director Neil Blonkamp (District 9) clearly wants to make a social statement about class and the uneven distribution of wealth and he sometimes succeeds. A "medbay" has eliminated all need for medical care on Elysium; on Earth, hospitals are completely overrun, struggling to provide care for anybody. Nearly everyone on Elysium is white; the population of Earth is highly diverse. Surprisingly, none of these choices feels heavy-handed, perhaps because these signs of wide class divisions are quite familiar. Unfortunately, the social commentary is frequently overwhelmed by extensive, bloody action sequences, which, while awesome, are fairly standard and give cause for all the standard complaints. They can be very hard to follow, with cuts so frequent that the screen is just a gory blur, and special effects departments are still doing that annoying thing where the action slows way down and speeds way up, a la 300. Blonkamp is trying to have his cake and eat it too - make socially relevant science fiction and a violent summer blockbuster. Elysium works better than one would expect, but even so, it has a mildly schizophrenic quality. Should I be feeling terrible that all those people are miserable or should I be gleefully enjoying the sight of a gazillion police droid pieces fly into the air?
My biggest complaint by far is the same complaint I have nearly every time I go to the movies. In the Hollywood movie universe, there are apparently way fewer women than men. Way fewer. Though you see lookers-on and passers-by, there are basically two women in the whole film - the bad one (Jodie Foster) and the good one (Alice Braga). The bad one is aggressive, manipulative, and power-hungry; the good one is angelic, caring, and a loving mother. Neither one has any complexity or even the typical "quirk" Hollywood bestows in lieu of personality. The movie still works - it's just sad that a movie clearly meant to be socially progressive is so very backward when it comes to gender.
But it's the yearly drought of intelligent entertainment, so I'll forgive quite a lot. Elysium is definitely a movie to see in the theater. If you're going to see a droid explode, it should be a big droid.
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