As with District 9, director Neill Blomkamp’s previous effort, I’ve seen several critics accuse Elysium of lacking subtlety. I disagree with that assessment; describing the film as unsubtle would imply that its intended message overwhelms the storytelling. I would instead call it “thematically transparent”—the “moral” of the story comes through loud and clear, but never at the expense of the characters’ compelling emotional journeys or the authenticity of the gorgeously-realized setting.
The movie’s now familiar elevator pitch—the rich and elite inhabit a luxurious space station, leaving the poor stranded on an overcrowded, heavily-polluted Earth—is merely a narrative framework for protagonist Max’s gradual evolution as a character. Max is introduced as a reluctantly reformed criminal, trying his best to stay out of trouble until he can afford to pay his way onto Elysium. After a workplace accident bathes him in a lethal dose of radiation, the former thief agrees to perform one last job in exchange for access to the orbiting paradise—and the miraculous medical machines therein. When the opportunity arises to save countless others by rewriting Elysium’s security protocols, however, Max must choose between selfishly preserving his own life and sacrificing himself for the greater good. Matt Damon’s quiet, charismatic performance brings the difficult moral dilemma to vivid life, transforming what could easily have been sterile, calculated social commentary into a heartwarming tale of human triumph.
[Originally written August 9, 2013.]