Slumming it – Elysium review


By Simon Miraudo
August 12, 2013

On the futuristic space station Elysium, there is no illness, thanks to miraculous DNA-reconstruction technology, and no poverty, because only the wealthiest one per-cent of people can afford a ticket to get there. However, if we’ve learnt anything from the Real Housewives franchise, in a highly concentrated population of duplicitous, tennis-paying trophy wives and their dunder-headed husbands, instances of wine being thrown in someone’s face would be frequent. We don’t get to glimpse this kind of drama – ahem, pardon me, “Draaaaamaa!” – in Neill Blomkamp‘s Elysium, nor do we get explanations for some of the other lingering questions relating to his floating utopia. (Who cleans the toilets? Are robots charged with all the menial jobs? Then why does the President have human guards? Since being ferried to Elysium costs a hefty sum, is that gig reserved for those who only earned a measly six figures on Earth? Does that mean Elysium has its own class system?)

One doesn’t really need answers to those rhetorical questions to enjoy Elysium, a mostly effective sci-fi commentary that benefits from a number of thrilling action set-pieces. With it, Blomkamp proves he is still a director of The People, despite his latest effort costing more than three times its predecessor, District 9. That film disguised the simmering racial tensions of South Africa in an alien invasion fable, wherein unwanted, intergalactic refugees were subjected to vicious brutality in the titular slums. Here, boat people – escaping Earth and seeking sanctuary on Elysium – are once again front and center. With a lead performance from the only everyman with a convincingly ripped bod, Matt Damon, and a maniacally menacing turn from former District 9 hero Sharlto Copley, Elysium has many of the ingredients one would think required to replicate D9‘s artistic success. So perhaps the only lingering question worth answering is, ‘Why isn’t it quite as good?’


Damon plays Max DeCosta, a reformed criminal trying to make good on an overpopulated Earth in the year 2154. His childhood dream of absconding to the perfectly manicured garden paradise of Elysium is reignited after a workplace accident renders him terminally ill. With just five days before his sad little life comes to an end, he turns to people smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura) for help. Spider will smuggle him to the satellite city if Max extracts some information from wealthy businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner). In his efforts to do so, he unwittingly endangers his childhood love, Frey (Alice Braga), interferes with a planned coup by Elysium’s Secretary of Defence (an unterutilised Jodie Foster), and winds up with vicious sex criminal and murderous police attack dog Kruger (Copley) on his tail. Going gently into the good night no longer seems like an option for old Max.

Elysium has some of the most striking sweeping shots of a future dystopia this side of Blade Runner. Amplifying District 9’s junkyard chic, Elysium paints a bleak, technologically-advanced, and frighteningly realistic portrait of the 22nd century. This is what Blomkamp does. There are scenes of asylum-seeking spaceships being gunned down in the cosmos; a disturbing sight, thanks to the director’s craftsmanship, as well as their haunting proximity to real encounters taking place in the waters right now. Where the emotional beats of Elysium fall short – DeCosta’s personal plight, and his romance with Frey – this imagery proves potent.

So why is my memory of it so faint, mere weeks after seeing it, while District 9 remains ingrained in me? D9 opened as a mockumentary, had a nebbish human protagonist with a shocking cruel streak (Copley’s Wikus van der Merwe), and an odd sense of humour (Wikus commenting on the popping sound of baby alien ‘Prawns’ being aborted inspired uncomfortable laughter). It was smart and incisive. Blomkamp, however, still knew which side his bread was buttered, inserting plenty of explosive sequences to make it all the more palatable. It was, after all, only made when his adaptation of the video game Halo was nixed. All that brain-bursting weaponry had to be put to use somewhere.

A few of the novel elements from that movie – a box office hit that also nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination – have been transplanted here, in a somewhat diminished form. Max DeCosta is kind of a jerk, jeopardising humanity’s opportunity for equality simply so he can extend his terrible existence, but Damon is so immensely likable that it’s hard to think him selfish on any level. The socio-political commentary has been preserved , as well as the extreme violence (Elysium is much more graphic than other tentpole releases of its ilk; at one point we literally see a face eviscerated, and then later, reconstructed). Yet the narrative ingenuity, and that essential comic bite, is gone.

Elysium has its moments. It’s entertaining – if not that emotionally involving – and relates an essential message of equality and empathy. And District 9 was hardly a perfect feature; the fact that it bobbed in and out of the documentary aesthetic bugs me to this day. But it was special. A truly individual achievement. That’s how classics are made. Elysium, by comparison, is simply fine.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Elysium arrives in Australian cinemas August 15, 2013.

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