People love action. Whether it’s Pacific Rim, or Man of Steel, big-budget action puts butts in theaters. Action is often simple and even stupid, with less time given to plot, characters, and ideas than time given to explosions, car chases, and tough-guy one-liners. It’s a tall order to add enough intellectual and emotional appeal to an action movie without sacrificing the spectacle that makes them exciting. Director Neil Blomkamp did this in District 9 to much acclaim and attempts this again with Elysium. The attempt is mostly successful, barring a few instances of convenient writing, overuse of a shaky camera, and an almost-cliché plot.
Set in 2154, the world is massively overpopulated, the entire city of L.A. being a slum. Max (Matt Damon) hopes to one day live in Elysium, a space-habitat populated only by the richest and luckiest citizens. For most, life there is just a dream. As the stakes grow higher, Max becomes involved with an underground rebel organization who strive to bring down the bureaucratic government.
This all sounds a bit cliché, and it certainly is at its most outer level. However, the world that Elysium creates is so detailed and believable that it fails to be a real distraction. In particular, Damon does such a good job with his character that you won’t really care that he’s going through the same motions of just about every down-on-his-luck protagonist of all time. He’s convincing as a man that has nothing and is willing to sacrifice everything for his dream. Following suit, the entire cast gives solid performances, even those with shallower characters. The least believable characters are the stuffy rich people, who we’re supposed to hate, and while they are highly unlikable, they’re a little too stuffy and too rich to be entirely realistic.
The movie is beautiful to look at, with the Earth looking depressingly decrepit and Elysium looking so clean and sterile you’d think you weren’t allowed to touch anything. CGI robocops blend seamlessly with real sets and actors, and there are some cool space scenes that should make sci-fi fans giddy. The only visual problem is with the action scenes that make excessive use of a shaky camera. These scenes are intense and exciting, but the camera makes it very difficult to see what’s happening.
Unlike many big-budget action films, Elysium is well paced, providing adequate context for its action. It doesn’t pull a Man of Steel or Avengers, and spend its first half spouting slow expository dialogue before beginning an hour long action climax that ironically becomes boring due to its excessiveness. Actions sequences are short and intense, and characters show actual pain and fatigue as they fight. Unlike so many action films, our characters feel like people who are scared and can potentially get hurt, which adds to the intensity. It’s well done, and keeps the film from ever being boring.
The ending is entirely expected. Nothing about it will surprise you, and the issues brought up aren’t really solved. Earth is still overpopulated, medical supplies won’t last forever, and there’s no way everyone can live on Elysium. So while the movie successfully inspires thought about important issues, it fails to deliver a clear message and call-to-action for its audience. It’s not a crime, but it feels like a lost opportunity.
Compared to District 9, Elysium is far less thought provoking, and perhaps even less exciting. Its gorgeous visuals and pacing are held back by its only slightly above-average plot. That said, it’s more interesting than most action movies and shows that action doesn’t have to mean brainless. It’s important for movies to deliver in more than one way, rather than relying on a single selling point, and Elysium is a good example of how the sum of many good elements can create a movie that, like Frosted Flakes, is more than good.
The Verdict: While it won’t probably be a classic, Elysium delivers a mix of action and ideas making it easy to recommend. Science fiction fans are likely to especially like this one.