Elysium Review: A bland tale which thinks it is high concept but actually is low low concept

“Elysium” is a follow up Sci-fi movie from the director of “District 9”. This fact is evident from the basic aesthetic of the movie. You could even image this movie to be a sequel to that movie set in the same universe but 150 years in the future. This is the year 2154 AD and the world has become a giant Mexico.

So, for anyone who was impressed by “District 9”, the question is whether this is a worthy successor. Sadly, it is not! It is a movie with a hefty high concept but without any substance to support that high concept.

“District 9” was not a movie with depth. It had a rather conventional high concept which had been in use in science fiction since the beginning. But, by choosing the South African setting, it brought something fresh to the conventional concept. It did not actually any new to bring to the old discussion. However, by telling the story from very personal perspective, it made us have an emotional response to the discussion.  At the end, “District 9” was an unconventionally and well executed very conventional Science fiction movie.

Elysium, on the other hand, is a very poorly executed super-conventional Science fiction movie. It had nothing new to say and has no idea how to present the discussion at even the minimalistic level that the discussion deserves.

Elysium is set in the world of 2154AD where the whole earth is somehow turned into Mexico and most of the people on earth seem to be of Spanish decent. All the white people have left earth to live on a ring shaped space orbital habitat or in laymen’s terms, space station called Elysium. It is evident from this what the subject the movie is dealing and what the director’s approach is. It is giving the audience an umbrella and dropping a car on top of them.

Curiously, not many Asians or even African decedents are in the movie. Of course, there is a black president of Elysium or earth or something. The movie is not clear about the structure of this society. This black president treated as a fool…     

Getting back on track, Matt Damon is the lead of the movie who is living on earth. It is rather funny that, in the sea of Mexicans inhabiting earth, a white character is the lead. But that is Hollywood for you. Matt Damon’s character is called Max but I forgot what he was called 30 minutes into the movie. There are no characters in this movie. Rather they are mere plot devices and not even good plot devices. Not only does none of the characters have actual motivations, but also none of the characters are even memorable. While the actors in this movie have given great performances in other movies, this is not true in this movie. Across the board, everyone is giving poor performances. However, not all the blame could be placed on the actors since there were given much. Throughout the whole film, Matt Damon is only given 10 minutes worth of dialog even when generously measured.  

Usually when a movie is light on character development, the movie is plot driven. While “Elysium” moves from one plot point to another like clockwork, it is difficult to state that it is plot driven as there is not enough plot here even at the basic level. The plot can easily be compressed into a few sentences without leaving much out. The generalized plot is there is a poor male lead who needs to go to this mystical place to use its magical powers. Because he needs a magical key to control that power, he steals the magical key and goes to this mystical place. Boom! Boom! Bang! Bang and everyone is saved. Replace magic with sci-fi elements and this is almost literally the movie “Elysium”.

Yes, this is a common formula with action movies. However, good action movies still have to fill in the void between set pieces and plot point with either humor, bombast, sexiness or something. Even something as basic as the actor’s charisma can fill in the void to some degree. What a movie should not do when following this action movie formula without a minimum level of character development is take itself serious or try to be realistic. “Elysium” commits this sin. “Elysium” comes off being bland as it moves from lukewarm plot point to another without even many set pieces. The aesthetic style of the movie conveys a fake sense of realism that clashes with the over bearing messaging and poor script.

It does not help that the world of the movie is not actually believable as it is paper thin. You have no real understanding of how the world end up being like this and the script does not really tell you how the world really is other than living on earth sucks. What is more problematic is that the antagonists, the people who live Elysium, are cartoonish in how they are displayed on screen. The only real reason why the plot moves forward is because the villains seem to be carried over from the bond movies when they were going through a silly phase. If the people who live Elysium were to any believable degree competent in their jobs, there would not be a movie. This makes the society on board Elysium feel like an overpriced hi-tech retirement home. Throughout the movie, the only security other than some robots is like 5 rent-a-cops on board and even they are helpless against 3 mercenaries bring down the whole place at will.  

Once again, the script is a poor excuse for the script.

So, let’s talk about how the movie deals with its subject matter.

What is the subject the movie is discussing? Well, on one hand, it seems obvious. But, on the other hand, it is not.  To some degree, it is the immigration situation across the U.S. boarders. To some degree, it is that the imbalanced distribution of wealth is bad. To some degree, it is about healthcare problem. Because the movie is blunt and broad/generic at the same time, it is difficult to know what the main thesis of the movie is. It does not help that the movie is extremely shallow.

For a movie that is trying to make a point, the movie is structured around a McGuffin. The magical power of the space station Elysium is that it is the only place where there are Machines that cure/repair any things in 10 seconds. This is a McGuffin because the medical devices are magical things that cost nothing, require nothing to do almost everything other than bring back the dead. It has no substance other than being an artificial goal that could trigger a Deus ex machine solution to this world’s problem. It is saying that the problem of the movie, what it may be, is only caused by wealthy hording the solution which cost them nothing and is not scarce. It is saying that the only reason 99% of the people in this world is suffering is because the other 1% are ass-holes. While the 1% may be ass-holes, there are actual reasons behind the existence of these problems other than that. Thus, whether the movie is trying to talk about healthcare or any of the subjects mentioned previously, having a magical solution undermines the discussion.

It does not help that the movie, in an attempt to be an allegory, does a poor job in translating the present world to the future of 2154AD. You have Mexicans that can barely eat building spaceships that are just launched to a space station. What are they trying to? Crash? Space stations are enclosed habitats floating in space. In most cases, someone actually has to let you in to get in safely.  But in this movie, this is actually reasonable since the space station is just open to space and a spaceship can just land inside it like it was an airplane representing the open boarders of the U.S.  It is such a ham-fisted approach to an allegory.
Overall, the script of the movie feels like a very bad Star trek episode in which there is no support structure to maintain the high concept. There is no real point of making an allegory if the story of the allegory itself is silly.

The final sin of the movie is that, at the end of the talking about the lack of actual characters, poor ham-fisted messaging, the movie is boring. The action is rather dull and poorly conceived. The images on the screen is one note and uninteresting. Once you get used to the aesthetic of the movie, nothing new is on the screen throughout the whole movie.

When I saw “District 9”, I liked it but had a feeling that the director may be a one note pony with only one or two good movies in him. Sadly, at the present, he only has one good movie and “Elysium” is not it.

Score: C-



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