Elysium: A brilliantly constructed universe with simplistic, amateur character writing

Warning: This review contains spoilers

I usually don’t go into action movies with high expectations — they’re an escape for me, a time to grab the popcorn, begrudgingly don a pair of 3D glasses and grin for 90 minutes. And yes, I’ll even go see them alone.

Elysium, however, is an action movie for which I had a myriad of high hopes. How could I not? I had been a huge fan of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster are both actors I hold in high esteem and, most confounding, between Star Trek, World War Z and Pacific Rim, I had been spoiled with surprisingly impressive action movies this summer.

It was like someone baked a cake with the best batter, high-quality frosting, chocolate chips on top and even wax paper-wrapped coins inside.

Except someone messed up and mistook “tsp” for “tbsp” and the whole thing ended up simultaneously too heavy and with not enough flavour.

The difference between films like Pacific Rim and Elysium was that Guillermo Del Toro created a film that never felt pretentious or preachy, and though he packed in solid thematic elements and great performances from his actors, he never once forgot that he was making a film about robots fighting giant monsters. It was a popcorn flick, but a really, really good one.

Elysium is a popcorn flick that doesn’t think it is one. Set a couple centuries in the future, the decrepit, dystopian Earth is now overcrowded and the one-percenters have fled for an artificial habitat in space, Elysium. Picturesque and privileged, Elysium’s big draw us its special healing beds, which cure the illness of any citizen who lies in it.

Max (Damon), an assembly line worker with a checkered past, has grown up dreaming of living on Elysium. After a work accident leaves Max suffering from radiation poison with five days to live, he turns to his old life of crime in order to scheme his way onto Elysium with a fake ID. The road bumps on Max’s journey include Elysium’s cold, anti-immigration defence secretary Jessica Delacourt (Foster), a maniacal wild-card assassin (Sharito Copley) and his beautiful childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) who has a complicated life and a daughter with leukaemia.

I should start by saying that I don’t really take issue with how transparent Blomkamp’s allegory for how Americans treat refugees and immigrants is. Obvious metaphor isn’t a bad thing. From a story perspective, Elysium was well-written. It is the shallow, one-dimensional and uninteresting characters which make Elysium completely unremarkable, even eye-roll inducing at times.

Damon’s character, Max, has only one clear goal in life — to go to Elysium and to live. But as a poisoned Max writhes in pain and insists to his fellow criminals that he wants — needs — to live, all I can think is, “Why?” Blomkamp doesn’t provide enough information about Max or his fixation on Elysium. He’s just selfish. While a selfish lead character isn’t a death sentence for a movie, the obviousness of his character arc is. The moment when I first rolled my eyes was when Frey’s precocious, sick daughter (one of the worst-written child characters in recent memory) tells Max a story about a hippo who gives a mouse a boost to get some food. “What’s in it for the hippo?” asks the hardened Max. “The hippo gets a friend,” peeps the little girl.

There’s heavy-handed, and then there’s painfully obvious. If it wasn’t clear to every viewer from that moment on that Max was going to end up sacrificing his life for the other sick Earthlings and learn a valuable lesson in death, then I have greatly overestimated the intelligence of the moviegoing public.

Foster’s character is no better. She’ll stop at nothing to rid Elysium of illegals and asks the president how he’ll feel when “they” are moving in next door and stealing his precious public space. Delacourt is little more than a cartoon character, though Foster still manages to have deliver the arrogance and commanding presence required of her stone-faced character.

Assassin Kruger (Copley) has already drawn comparisons to Heath Ledger’s 2008 interpretation of the Joker, and I can only ask why. it is possible to create a character who is an agent of chaos who is still interesting. But as remorseless and unrelenting as Kruger is, it all feels so predictable.

It’s a shame this summer ended on a low-note for movies — I’ll remain thankful for the surprisingly enjoyable popcorn action flicks and the delightful indie surprises. Elysium is a mere drop in the ocean as far as summer movies are concerned. Perhaps this just felt so disappointing because it was so over-hyped.

(P.S. — if you’re wondering, I rolled my eyes once again when, at the moment of his death, Max croaked to Frey to tell her daughter that he really liked her story, and he knows now why the hippo did it).