Movie Information

The Story: In 2154, there's what's left of earth and there's Elysium — a paradise for the wealthy. And it's a paradise one man must penetrate if he's to survive lethal radiation poisoning. The Lowdown: It hits more than it misses — not in the least because Elysium has more on its mind than any other big-budget, sci-fi actioner to come out this year. Unfortunately, it also has some shortcomings that keep it from really winning the big prize.
Genre: Science Fiction
Director: Neill Blomkamp (District 9)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura
Rated: R

While I find more problems with Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium as time passes, I still come down pretty strongly for the film. No, it’s not as good as Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), but it’s good and is easily my third favorite of the summer’s Big-Budget Blockbusters to date. Considering that most of the others have already evaporated from my mind, that’s perhaps not the highest praise. The very fact that it’s science fiction that’s actually about something other than battles (though it has them) — or feeding an existing franchise or rebooting one — is reason enough to sit up and take notice. That it doesn’t entirely succeed almost seems secondary in 2013 — a sobering realization in itself.

The film’s premise works dramatically regardless of whether it’s scientifically sound. (As long as the movie sticks to its stated concept, I neither know nor care very much about the science.) And, for a movie of this type, the plot is agreeably complex — there are at least five different agendas being played against each other. (The motivations, on the other hand, aren’t always clear.) Yes, the film is part allegory — touching on both the class divide and immigration — and meant to relate to our time as much as the 2154 setting. But the allegory isn’t as in-your-face as you might suspect. It’s even open to a certain amount of interpretation — largely because the film isn’t too specific about the way things came to this pass. All we know is that the immensely wealthy live on Elysium — a kind of space-station gated community — while the rest of us are stuck on a vastly depleted earth featuring pollution, dead-end underpaying jobs and robots programmed to maintain law and order.

At its simplest level, the story involves an earthling, Max (Matt Damon), who gets a lethal dose of radiation at work, has five days to live and is determined to make it to Elysium to take advantage of advanced medical care that can fix just about anything in a matter of seconds. At the same time, the head of Elysium security, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is plotting to overthrow the “weak” president who disagrees with her zero-tolerance policies on earthlings. There are several other intertwined plots, but these are the basics. And it comes together pretty well.

That said, there are problems. The fight scenes go on too long. Jodie Foster’s tight-assed, one-note performance — not to mention her unfathomable accent — does the film no favors. Moreover, the film is incapable — as every film seems to be — of painting a persuasive picture of a desirable utopia. The ennui factor on Elysium must be astounding. The whole place looks like a big, bleached Beverly Hills where the occupants idle away their time doing very little. (It’s no surprise the film spends more time on earth.) Then, there are nagging questions for which the film has no answers. Earth is obviously used for labor and possibly even for growing food, but all we see are the sun-baked leftovers of Los Angeles. That’s all the film features — Elysium and L.A. — with no explanation. This strikes me as a definite problem. It doesn’t sink the film, but it does diminish it. Rated R for strong, bloody violence and language throughout.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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29 thoughts on “Elysium

  1. Ken Hanke

    And as long as you’re keen on a world where women have no say in who they hook up with.

    • Dionysis

      I’d forgotten about that aspect of the film, but you are right; that would not be part of any utopian ideal of mine.

  2. DrSerizawa

    I’m going to go see it simply because it’s not a reboot or a franchise. Jodie’s accent might just be a bonus.

    Too bad there’s no simian action.

  3. DrSerizawa

    Going next week. Mother-in-law in hospital kind of put the skosch on everything.

  4. Jeremy Dylan

    Longest ad for universal health care I’ve ever seen. Pretty good thought, especially in comparison to most of this year’s cinematic output.

  5. Ken Hanke

    especially in comparison to most of this year’s cinematic output.

    Kinda distressing, ain’t it?

  6. Jeremy Dylan

    Kinda distressing, ain’t it?

    Extremely. I can’t think of a film that pleasantly surprised me all year, but I could name scores that underwhelmed me – and a few I flat out hated. And only one that I loved.

    I’m pinning my hopes on AMERICAN HUSTLE, BLUE JASMINE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and THE WOLF OF WALL ST, with cautious optimism toward GRAVITY and THE COUNSELOR.

  7. Xanadon't

    I’m hurling caution right out the window in the case of The Counselor. If Ridley Scott’s somewhat spotty recent output is red, and The Counselor’s trailer is black, well dammit, I’m putting it all on black.

  8. Ken Hanke

    As someone who finds all Ridley Scott’s output spotty, I’m in the “we’ll see” corner on that. Blue Jasmine is very good, maybe great. I have high hopes for Scorsese and the Coens.

  9. Edwin Arnaudin

    The Counselor‘s most appealing aspect for me is the Cormac McCarthy script.

    Salinger, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Oldboy, and Her are also high on my Most Anticipated list.

    …and there’s more or less a year left until The Grand Budapest Hotel.

  10. Ken Hanke

    As a die-hard Chiwetel Ejiofor fan, I’m interested in 12 Years and I’m curious to see Oldboy, though I’m skeptical. Salinger is a doc, so…Her is a hard call, but as someone who has yet to like a Spike Jonze picture, it’s a long-shot.

    • DrSerizawa

      I enjoyed the “Vengeance” Series. But as is usual the general buzz way over rates them. The first was the weakest of the three, IMHO.

      Still, I thought the final snowfalling scene in “Lady Vengeance” to be one of the most gorgeous ever filmed.

      If I had to pick my favorite Korean movie of recent years it would be the deliciously over-the-top Save The Green Planet.

  11. Xanadon't

    Her looks problematic to me, and I mostly enjoy Spike Jonze. Hopefully any doubts I have will be erased. The Wolf on Wall Street looks like an absolute and glorious riot. I’m anticipating that one heavily, even by Scorsese standards. Rush actually has me more curious about a Ron Howard picture than I’ve probably ever been.

    Salinger IS a doc, but fewer subjects could get me more automatically excited. But if it winds up being all Holden, Holden, Holden, and nary a mention of the Glass family –as I fear– then I’m going to be disappointed.

    Ken, have you given Oldboy a watch then?

  12. Ken Hanke

    I gotta say either Jonze is too hip for me, or I just don’t get him. And Her sounds like a variation on Sim0ne.

    I actually watched all three of the “Vengeance” movies, though I keep meaning to watch the “White Album” (or whatever it’s called) version of Lady Vengeance (which in many ways I liked better than the other two).

    Funny thing, I read Catcher in the Rye at exactly the right age to be at least whelmed by it or go on a shooting spree, and it was just a shrug for me. I realize that makes me an intellectual turnip, but there it is.

  13. Edwin Arnaudin

    I’m hoping that the 12 Years trailer is misleading as it appears far from the typical McQueen style.

    Salinger sounds less about the author’s work and more about his life, why he stopped publishing, and the prospect of his unpublished works.

    As for Jonze, I like Malkovich a lot and Adaptation even more, but think Where The Wild Things Are is a disaster.

    And as for the new Payne, I thought The Descendants had some significant story issues and was hoping that he would take over script duties with Jim Taylor for Nebraska. Neither are involved in the writing this time, so we’ll see where that goes.

  14. Jeremy Dylan

    I’m hoping that the 12 Years trailer is misleading as it appears far from the typical McQueen style.

    In what way? I haven’t seen the trailer, but I don’t think being a departure from SHAME or HUNGER would be a necessarily bad thing for this picture.

  15. Ken Hanke

    The only thing by Steve (No Relation) McQueen that I’ve seen is Shame and while Mr. Fassbender proved to be, um, impressive, I was far from blown away by the film. But then that’s kind of the problem I’m having getting jazzed over most of these things. I either don’t like the filmmaker (Jonze) or I’m ambivalent (McQueen, Payne) or I’m uninterested (Howard). The only things that generate actual anticipation have the names Scorsese or Coen on them. Much as I like Alfonso Cuaron, I am having zero luck getting excited about Gravity.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I enjoyed the “Vengeance” Series. But as is usual the general buzz way over rates them. The first was the weakest of the three, IMHO.

    I think I benefitted from being very skeptical and not expecting much, so they were better than I was anticipating. Yes, the first is the weakest.

    If I had to pick my favorite Korean movie of recent years it would be the deliciously over-the-top Save The Green Planet.

    I have never seen that.

  17. Edwin Arnaudin

    In what way? I haven’t seen the trailer, but I don’t think being a departure from SHAME or HUNGER would be a necessarily bad thing for this picture.

    Shame proved that McQueen could still be visually experimental within a fairly straightforward narrative. I see plenty of potential for long takes and interesting camera placement/movement with 12 Years, and am pretty confident they’ll be present.

  18. DrSerizawa

    Well, it wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t really good either. They were so intent on getting out their message that they neglected to make it very coherent. I thought that a better ending would be for Matt Damon to get Foster to agree to provide him healthcare. And then when he shows up at the clinic they put him on a 3 month waiting list. Like in real Govt healthcare.

    I’m really tired of the shaky-cam cut-action fights where you can’t tell what the heck is going on. In fact I had a hard time telling what was going on at all in most of the last half hour. Am I supposed to believe that they had hundreds of autodocs ready to send to Earth just waiting for authorization?

    There are just too many problems with this movie. Like handheld rockets than can reach orbit. Still, it didn’t bore me. Definitely a rainy Sunday DVD candidate.

    BTW I was the only one in the theater. I guess it barely covered it costs in release. The foreign markets will probably make it a tidy profit.

  19. Ken Hanke

    To be honest, it’s so evaorated from my mind that I wouldn’t mount a defense.

    Right now it’s grossed about $140 million (US and foreign). It cost $115 million, so it’s still about $90 million away from breaking even.

    • DrSerizawa

      Actually I would rather have seen the new Woody Allen but it hasn’t made it here yet.

  20. Ken Hanke

    A far superior work, but also a completely different proposition. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten it. It had a big expansion this weekend.

  21. Big Al

    “I read Catcher in the Rye…and it was just a shrug for me…that makes me an intellectual turnip, but there it is.”

    No, that just makes you NOT one of the small, select army of sanctimonious pseudo-intellectuals that fawn over the “canon” of American Literatire, most of which is crap that no one would read if not forced to by their High School English teacher.

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