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Image: Columbia Pictures
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
R (For strong bloody violence and language throughout.)
Directed By
Neill Blomkamp
Run Time
1 hour 49 minutes
Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
Theatre Release
August 09, 2013 by Sony Pictures Releasing

Whether or not you'll like Elysium is almost totally determined by whether you liked director Neil Blomkamp's debut film District 9, because it and Elysium are about as related as two films can be. Both feature men caught up in situations much bigger than themselves, both plots are intensely allegorical, and both are at times heavy-handed in a way that scares off and repels some critics.

While District 9 paired modern times with an alien twist, Elysium moves all the action 150 years from today, sans aliens, into an overpopulated and dilapidated Los Angeles. Matt Damon's Max works as a reformed ex-con in a sort of dystopian factory, manufacturing the very police drones that are comfortable with breaking his arm on the way to work. However, after managerial carelessness results in Damon receiving a lethal dose of radiation, Damon has only five days to reach the ultra-rich space station/lifeboat Elysium, which floats in the earth's atmosphere like another moon and harbors the terraphobic rich of 2154.

Columbia Pictures

Elysium has none of District 9's multivalence, and that has prompted critics to castigate Blomkamp for a preachiness that was really there all along. Maybe Blomkamp's smartest move in District 9 was using the alien Prawns as a metaphorical double whammy. They represented both the struggles caused by apartheid in the past and the modern-day struggles over immigration.

Because of this, Blomkamp made no ideological enemies; people who enjoyed his stance on immigration chose that metaphor, and even if you thought countries should all have the closed-est of borders, well, no one thinks apartheid was a good thing. The even allegorical sell didn't alienate any potential viewers.

But now, releasing a film whose MacGuffin is a medical pod that heals any wound, in our cultural context—Obamacare, Medicare, discussion as to whether or not a society should provide at all for "the least of these," and if the answer is yes, how much and in what wayshows a boldness that wasn't present in District 9.

Most criticism of the movie has been directed at the heavy-handedness of the message, a feature of Blomkamp's work that forms its only continuity with the gee-whiz Gene Roddenburyesque sci-fi of yesteryear. Sci-fi has, at its core, always been allegorical and preachy: writers basically fashioning ad absurdum arguments in narrative form. (Sci-fi's closest formal cousin isn't fantasy, which generally is escapist in aim. It's satire, which also holds a mirror to society, but whose funhouse mirror is made out of comedy rather than technology and the passage of time.)

The movie is far from perfect. Sharlto Copley is almost a too-easy antagonist (a trait he shares with District 9's Jason Cope), Alice Braga's character is underdeveloped, the end is too convenient and preachy—but I feel that those complaints miss something staggeringly important about Elysium. The problem is just that Blomkamp likes to make his movies look like they're about the things they're not about, which is confusing, because I don't think Elysium is primarily "about" healthcare or inequality at all, any more than Apocalypse Now is "about" Vietnam.

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