Damon goes postal, in "Elysium"

Damon goes postal in “Elysium”

I am sure that buried, somewhere, in the “slam bang, shoot-em-up” that is “Elysium,” is a potentially interesting parable about modern society that could have been developed more than it is.  There is a good premise here, but the film does not pay it off in a way that is satisfying.

Science fiction, set in the future, is almost always meant as a commentary on contemporary conditions.  “Elysium” takes place late in the twenty-first century on an over crowded and polluted planet Earth.  Those with money have blasted off to Elysium, an idyllic, green, pastoral, well appointed circular space station like contraption.  This floating Shangri-La is easily glimpsed by those unfortunates still on Earth.  In addition to being a refuge, Elysium has state of the art health care and can cure any ailment, including cancer. 

Naturally the poor, disenfranchised, and largely minority population on Earth wants to enter Elysium (illegally, according to the rules of Elysium) to take advantage of its superior health care and nicer environment.  Enter Matt Damon, playing a ne’er do well character named Max who has a female Latino friend, Frey (Alice Braga).  Frey’s daughter has leukemia and Frey, understandably, needs to take advantage of Elysium’s superior medical facilities.

“Elysium” is certainly on the side of universal health care.  Can the symbolic significance of people taking off into the universe in order to receive better health care be any more obvious?  Jodie Foster plays a right wing politician who violently opposes what she sees as illegal immigration to Elysium, in stark contrast to Elysium’s left wing president, President Patel (Faran Tahir).

So, this story about the future has contemporary issues involving health care, the divide between rich and poor, politics, race and undocumented immigrants.  The parallels to today’s American society are obvious and that is fine.  However, I left “Elysium” wondering what, aside from its dazzling special effects, did the film bring to the table?  I needed something other than just the idea that today’s societal and political issues will still exist in the future.  I felt that there had to be more to this premise.  For example, the movie “Blade Runner” (1982) also takes place in the future on an over crowded Earth, where the wealthy also live away from the poor.  “Blade Runner” uses its futuristic setting to ponder the question of what it means to be human.  In other words, even though “Blade Runner” takes place in the future, it addresses an issue that has resonance with a contemporary audience.  “Elysium” merely dresses up contemporary issues for a contemporary audience.

“Elysium” did not provide a solution to the issues that it raises, aside from a violent, climactic showdown.  The “Elysium” filmmakers have come up against a common screenwriting problem called “trouble in the third act.”  They set up an interesting situation, in the first and second acts, but then do not know how to pay it off…so they have lots of shooting, crashes, etc.

Another issue I had with “Elysium” is that many of its scenes are shot largely in close shots accompanied by choppy editing and shaky camera work. All of this made it difficult to tell what was going on in many of the scenes.  After a while I wanted to exclaim, to the director, camera operator and editor (none of whom were present at the screening I attended),  “Stand back, give a wide shot lasting more than three seconds, stop cutting so much, and just let me see the actors perform within the film’s environment.”

“Elysium” is an expensive looking and, at points, visually intriguing movie. It takes contemporary issues and puts them into a futuristic context, but for what reason I am unclear.

Elysium, Director Neill Blomkamp, 2013,

Sony Pictures Releasing, 109 minutes, rated R


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 19, 2013, in New and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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