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Actually, It's Not Better Up There.
Posted on August 16, 2013 | Back to Movies and Television
Here be spoilers.
In the year 2154, the best place to live on earth is above it. I'm speaking of the orbiting "habitat" called Elysium. And why not live on Elysium? After all, Earth's basically a barren wasteland of high-rise slums surrounded by mucky desolation. Seen from above, all the continents are an ugly brown because apparently nothing grows there anymore... which makes me wonder how the planet can still support those billions of people living in those high-rise slums? I mean, what are all those people eating?
By contrast, the ultra-rich, ultra-elite residents of Elysium eat very well. They have lovely outdoor picnics where they speak French, dine on little French pastries and sip French champagne. (Okay, I don't actually know about the pastry and champagne part, but the Elysium space station does resemble a huge cookie so, you know, there's that..) They also speak English but apparently no other languages because it clashes with their tailor-made suits and perfect haircuts. Everyone on Elysium lives in giant mansions which are equipped with machines which can tone, buff and cure you of everything from a common skin blemish to severe head trauma.
As the ads say – "Elysium, it's better up there."
The only problem with being a resident of Elysium is that you need to be so morally bankrupt that you can turn a blind eye to the poor masses on Earth and shoot down shuttlecraft filled with the sick and dying – whom you euphemistically refer to as "immigrants" – rather than give them five minutes in your magical cure-all machines.
This, my friends, is the premise behind the new film Elysium starring Matt Damon. The film was directed by Neill Blomkamp who gave us the brilliant District 9 a few years ago. Damon plays an ex-con-trying-to-go-straight named Max. We don't know much about him, except that he was raised in a Los Angeles area orphanage where he met and fell in love with a girl named Frey (Alice Braga). Max always told Frey that one day he'd take her to Elysium and they'd live the same paradisiacal existence as all those French-speaking folk. But when he's accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the robot-building plant where he works, Max becomes even more motivated to head "up there." (They have magic cure-all machines, remember?) With only five days left to live, he makes a deal with a local gang lord to steal classified information from the brain of Elysium's architect, John Carlyle (played by William Fichtner) in exchange for safe passage to the station. Max gets more than he bargains for as Carlyle's actually carrying an entire reboot program in his noggin, meant to help the station's malicious defense secretary (Jodie Foster in a throwaway role) stage a bloodless coup. You see, Foster's upset that Elysium's current president doesn't have the same fuck-the-poor attitude she does and it's making her nervous. After all, who wants non-French-speaking "immigrants" living next door?
What follows is an utterly predictable, frequently tiresome action film where Max, outfitted with a cybernetic suit that gives him only slightly-more-strength-than-usual, battles his way through an army of police robots and a ridiculous hit-man named Kruger.
(Kruger will go down on some future list of mine as one of the worst science-fiction villains of all time. He's a seething, lascivious and cliché-spewing brute. Ironically, he's also played by Sharlto Copley, the actor who so brilliantly portrayed the sniveling bureaucrat Wikus Van de Merwe in District 9. C'est la vie!)
I had high hopes for Elysium. I'm huge fan of both Damon and Foster but they're completely wasted here, giving us nothing more than tired science fiction caricatures we've seen a thousand times before. Just as regrettable is the directing. The themes Blomkamp handled so deftly in District 9 – a disenfranchised population, the separation between the haves and have-nots, political corruption – he takes a sledgehammer to in Elysium. Ten minutes in and I was already feeling like I was being lectured at – and that's never a good reaction to any kind of movie.
Rather than seeing Elysium, go back and re-watch District 9. Granted, it doesn't have Matt Damon or Jodie Foster, but as morality tales about social injustice go, it's the much better film.