i was psyched to see ELYSIUM with my mom a couple of nights ago. i’ve loved the many recent film adaptations and (re)interpretations  of stories, characters, and worlds i already loved, like THE AVENGERS, STAR TREK and THE HUNGER GAMES (yes, even with its numerous flaws). but it’s also exciting to see a wholly original science fiction vision realized on the big screen—especially a dystopian take on our own world, like ELYSIUM.

the basic premise of the film is that earth has become horribly polluted, dangerously overpopulated, and infested with disease. the very wealthy have abandoned the planet for elysium—a shiny space station in orbit, where they use state-of-the-art medical technology and wealth extracted from the earth they left behind to create and idyllic paradise. in short, the earth is a giant third world ghetto, and elysium is a first world heaven.

director neill blomkamp (DISTRICT 9) does a decent job creating this reality. his los angeles of 2154 doesn’t feel like a CG world. he filmed it in poor, run-down parts of mexico city, giving his L.A. a real, visceral tangibility. with brief but detailed glimpses of substandard technology, medicine, and infrastructure—as well as an economy short on jobs and long on surplus labor—blomkamp shows provides a sense of the difficulties of an earth-bound life. but earth does not feel like a joyless place, either. i really like that. humans, regardless of how fucked up their circumstances, will find moments of love, happiness, and connection. (well, maybe almost regardless.)

we spend less time on elysium, but we’re there enough to understand that life on ‘the torus’ is essentially one of luxury, unless you work for the military, in which case it’s a life of luxury punctuated by secret violence to maintain the social order. elysium has everything earth doesn’t—medical technology that borders on magic; clean air, water, and land, trees and green space; leisure time and activities; political liberty and power—and is ideologically committed to not sharing. people on earth dream of one day going to elysium. those dreams do not come true.

i thought blomkamp could have explored the relationship between the two more. the only sense we get of how the people on elysium maintain their dominance and exclusivity is blunt military force. i’m sure there would have been mechanisms in the policial and economic structures that help maintain ‘order’, but we don’t get to see them.

within this world lives max (matt damon), a man who has spent a lot of his life in the underground economy (and prison) but is now trying to stay straight. im not going to tell you too much about max’s story, or the other people around him. for one thing, i hate spoilers. for another, you can get that stuff in any of a million reviews out there.

so, briefly: max’s boss at his straight job forces him into dangerous conditions, where he has an accident that will prove fatal if he can’t get treatment on elysium in a matter of days. which he can’t. so he then goes on a mission to find a way up there, calling on his underground contacts. the movie is the story of his struggle to get medical treatment first for himself, then for an old friend’s dying daughter.

this is all a lot of intro to make one basic point. although i generally enjoyed the film, i felt like it came up short in the solution it posed to the problems of blomkamp’s 2154 earth. max’s struggle is very much HIS, as an individual. to the extent that it involves other people, they are pulled in by their personal relationships to max. and when (spoiler alert)…

…max finally gets to elysium, he does what he does as an individual (with a little help from spider, the head of the underground operation that he thought he had left and is now forced to return to). there is no broader political struggle, no popular resistance, no revolutionary movement. this is really too bad. even luke had the rebels.

the world was interesting enough—and left enough questions completely unanswered—that i would have preferred that blomkamp let the story breathe over two or three films, build the world out at a more measured pace, and allow the class struggle so clearly set up in his premise play out on screen. instead, we get the story of a single hero, who kind of just stumbles into his opportunity to change the world.

while i liked a lot about the film, including stellar performances from a cast led my damon, jodie foster, and sharlto copley, the resolution to the interesting conflicts and tensions that blomkamp sets up felt a bit empty.