Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is a better film than its follow-up, Chappie, but it is also a more distressing one. Chappie is inept at the level of bare functional mechanics, but at least it feels like the product Blomkamp wanted to make (and, admittedly, proof that he does not much understand storytelling or tone at all). Elyisum, meanwhile, has the musty odor and schematic corporatism of the product he thought he was supposed to make. While Chappie is a fearlessly stupid product of personal vision, Elysium is an antiseptic epic (an antisepic, if you will) masquerading as a unique work of social parable and world-building. It is ungainly and poorly focused, using dirtiness as a cheap aesthetic trade-off in lieu of genuine emotional effect, and it is largely willing to trot out themes about inequality and social rebellion in increasingly arbitrary, insulting ways. That is, before it turns said themes into paltry excuses for lazy action entertainment, and Matt Damon.
Matt Damon playing an impoverished worker with a rebellious streak and a heart of silver, or something that isn’t quite gold but still fairly lustrous in the end. One day, he is exposed to radioactive chemicals as a result of an accident during his day job, and resigned to death. The Earth of 2159 that he lives in is a death trap where the impoverished are abused and live a life of waiting to die anyway, the bourgeois of the world safe and complacent in floating around Earth on the utopia construct of Elysium. Where, among other things, medical tech is so advanced that life-threatening diseases are cured in the span of an instant. And wouldn’t you know it…Damon’s character happens to have a life-threatening disease in need of curing.
Which forms the backbone of Blomkamp’s superficial social parable by way of intimate human story take on material that is not only well-worn, but cloyingly over-turned. Little about Elysium functions as a human portrait, although Damon tries his best to keep the material afloat, but the real shame is the film’s wider ambition as commentary. Elysium is the worst of both worlds, not nuanced as an exploration of social class outside of the broadest strokes and not sufficiently bombastic or bodacious enough to work as a more broadly genre-fried, mythic take on the material. Superficial analysis of social class is fine, but superficial, sober, sour-faced analysis of social class is just lazy filmmaking. Superficial, sober, sour-faced analysis of social action that secretly wishes to be an action film, and a bad action film at that, dropping the pretense of social analysis halfway through? That is just dishonest. And confused, for that matter, in the way it wishes to function as a highly-abstract metaphor for present day social inequality but doesn’t have the courage to genuinely abstract the material, making all the grounded realism of the piece seem like a lie more than anything.
Elysium is all the more tentative in hindsight, with works like Bong Joon-ho’s deliriously energetic, playfully horrific set-design extravaganza exercise in pop-Marxism, Snowpiercer, on the horizon. A work that is fully and entirely able to couch its social parable in hypnotic, fearless filmmaking with a ballistic streak a mild wide, emerging with both a death-defying exercise in cartoon physics and a nuanced critique of the bourgeois for convincing the leaders of the working class to get in bed with them and lie to those they nominally represent. Snowpiercer is a proudly theoretical work where people serve primarily as reflections of the modern day; the film understanding its theatrical parable and actively flaunting this understanding while throwing realism to the side and emerging with something almost abstract as a social commentary. Meanwhile, Elysium is out there pretending its characters and world are sober and realist in wholly unearned ways.
To take the villainous Jodie Foster here and compare to Tilda Swinton’s magisterial portrayal of a sniveling bourgeois type in Snowpiercer, both are live-action cartoon depictions of corporate evil. But Snowpiercer is proud of its cartoonish broad-side to the elite, eschewing the knife for the chainsaw and having the time of its life tearing into the wealthy and bathing in the blood. Elysium seems to think it is a hard-hitting, trenchant work of grubby, scalpel-precise realism, and it does not have the writing to back it up. Which makes Elysium not only a bore, but a circumspect bore.