The year is 2154. Earth is overpopulated and under-resourced. Los Angeles looks like a cross between a war zone and a never-ending shanty town. The poor are the population. Up above, orbiting the Earth, the rich minority live in comfort aboard space station Elysium; a shining white band of luxury not dissimilar to silicon valley redressed as a holiday resort. Unless you’re watching this movie from Mars, the allusion to present economic divides will not be lost on you. District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is about to set the 99ers against the 1.
From a satellite’s HD view of Earth let’s zoom in on one survivor; ex-con Max (Matt Damon) eking out an existence as a factory worker, dreaming of a better life in the heavens. However, when an industrial accident exposes him to a dose of radiation leaving him 5 days to live, Max’s sense of self-preservation kicks into overdrive as he becomes determined to find a way to the comfort and medical salvation aboard Elysium. Throwing back in with the criminal underground he’s tried to shrug off, Max agrees to work for committed super-smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura), striking up a bargain to hack data right out of the head of one of Elysium’s corporate elite (William Fichtner) in exchange for a ticket to the skies.
All he needs are his radiation meds and a mecha exoskeleton bolted onto his body to give him the strength to do the job. Welcome to this summer’s finest slice of blockbuster sci-fi.
Blomkamp, having graduated to the big leagues with District 9 in 2009, doesn’t falter or particularly compromise with his sure-footed second feature. His almost fetishistic love for hard science-fiction tech is imprinted on Elysium just as potently as his obvious influences. Sci-fi cinema’s big guns get healthy nods from the get-go. Elysium itself recalls the bicycle-wheel-in-space of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whilst Los Angeles is policed by Robocops and ineffectual bureaucracy is enforced by automatons that conjure up memories of Total Recall‘s Johnny-Cab.
All of this may suggest that Elysium is derivative, and it’s a charge that sticks to a degree, but it’s worth pointing out that other Blomkamp signatures are firmly in place here too; namely some barbed social commentary and a healthy and infectious appetite for kinetic action. It may take time to fully ramp up, but Elysium (much like Max) is eager to launch itself into the stratosphere.
They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Max’s journey through this film is physically demanding to say the least. Matt Damon taps into his trusted and often-derided everyman persona, giving Max enough stubborn perseverance to make his essentially selfish quest one that the viewer can root for. Blomkamp sets him up against a trio of villains. Fichtner’s corporate suit is prissy and ineffectual, quickly taking on the role of McGuffin. Jodie Foster’s ambitious politician Delacourt is an awkward creation; her dialogue so stilted that I spent the first half of the movie suspecting she was a cyborg. Last, but by no means least is Sharlto Copley as mercenary Kruger; a sinister and ruthless son of a bitch who makes the prospect of a serious commitment positively frightening. Ladies, you do not want to attract this man’s attention.
Copley may well standout as far as performances go (and you’d be a fool to shrug Kruger off), but it’s worth mentioning how well Damon sells Max, especially in the second half of the film as his personal quest for survival takes on wider ramifications. The character follows a predictable yet satisfying arc, and Damon solidly gets us there. It may not be sensational, but it’s well orchestrated. Whilst on this journey it’s interesting to note how brutish Max becomes once the exoskeleton is welded onto him. Quite whether the loss of humanity through fusing with the mechanical was a primary comment of Blomkamp’s is hard to tell. There are a number of other concerns clearly bubbling under (and most of the time on to) the surface.
It’s surprising to see a Hollywood picture that takes such an empathetic approach to illegal asylum seekers for one thing, whilst liberal attitudes to ending (or at least exploiting) extreme wealth to the benefit of the impoverished are whole-heartedly championed here, especially in the final stretch.
You can read into it all you want. The bullet points are plain to see. What’s more enjoyable however is submitting to Blomkamp’s action assault course. Violent and breathlessly edited, Elysium feels as cramped as Earth’s overpopulated surface, belting along at a brisk pace that veers close to relentless. Early concerns of a comparatively pedestrian pace are dispelled as things amp up and up. Elysium earns it’s UK 15 certificate with as many potty-mouthed expletives as bone-crunching, bullet-pumping, exploding-ninja-star-featuring action scenes. The excesses of late 80’s sci-fi pictures is definitely a key touchstone for this movie.
Because of this brisk brashness, some elements feel underdone. In plot terms, the interesting (if not at all new) notion of ‘brain-hacking’ could have been burrowed into further here, whilst the women in the picture are sorely underwritten. Foster’s aforementioned Delacourt is a one-note iron lady, whilst Max’s old flame Frey (Alice Braga) is frequently reduced to a cipher in need of rescuing. The world of Elysium feels strangely inconsistent also, almost as if Blomkamp keeps upping the pace to stop us pausing to take stock.
Nevertheless, I was utterly entertained by this escalating riot of action and hard sci-fi. The reviews I’ve seen have been somewhat muted in their praise, and the shadow of District 9 seems to be looming large over this film’s appraisal, which is a little unfair. Elysium is by far one of the year’s more successful spectacles, boasting some beautiful (if borrowed) versions of utopia and dystopia in equal measure. If Blomkamp can keep up his appetite for destruction, we could well be in safe hands for some summers to come.