"Easier, too, for Elysium to advance one of the more openly socialist
political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory beating the drum
loudly not just for universal healthcare, but for open borders, unconditional
amnesty and the abolition of class distinctions as well."
Scott Foundas, Variety.com
Those are a lot of socio-political hot potatoes to place on one movie's shoulders but all these issues are present and correct (or incorrect according to your world view) in Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. And they are not rammed down an audience's throat. They are there because the issues collide, penetrate and permeate each scene in this neatly surprising science fiction story. It's a small pleasure to welcome an original big film in these times of remakes, re-imaginings and sequels despite the fact that its themes have been doing the rounds in literary science fiction for quite a while. It's 2154 and disease, ecological disaster and over-population have rendered the Earth close to uninhabitable. Sad to say but this is a realistic future. Aggressive robots serve as police while the teeming populace of Los Angeles (logically populated mostly by Latinos) struggle to earn a living. Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-con who's trying to go straight by working shifts at a robotics factory. When he was a child, brought up by an insightful Spanish nun, he befriended Frey, an older girl. Max was also captivated by 'Elysium', a giant circular space station visible in the sky with its own atmosphere and population and it was his and Frey's dream to go there one day.
But this is where the mean people of means live. This is apartheid, rich and poor, science fiction style. The privileged in this movie are so easy to despise, it's almost as if they have barbecues planted on their enormous green spaces with infants and puppies on spits roasting over hot coals. This is what the fat cats of Ben Elton's novel Stark might have built if they'd had a little more ambition. The über-wealthy 'Hampton Green set' live in a virtual paradise in space with medical bays that can provide cutting edge health care at the molecular level. As long as the brain's still functioning, these suntan salon styled beds can heal anything. The cutting edge technological advances are not available to the masses that struggle on Earth to scratch out a living. Needless to say, there are millions in need of that technology and the lucky and desperate ones make regular, illegal off-world trips with a tiny percentage of a chance of making it back alive let alone healed.
Blomkamp is not one for the subtlety of his primary concepts, not that this is to the film's detriment at all. In District 9 the insectoid aliens were clear avatars of the oppressed blacks in South Africa and in its way it was another creative opportunity of looking at man's inhumanity to man/alien. Blomkamp's notion of the total separation of rich and poor is a sledgehammer idea wrought finely by a true film-maker who doesn't let us off the hook. Simple, impractical segregation (how do you measure a person's wealth and where's the cut off point?) forces us to rethink the issues. Elysium isn't an answer. It's a space station brimming with questions. Apply any form of logic to the scenario and certain practical components fall apart but the movie is nearly derailed by one extraordinary scene in all the wrong ways.
Let's play "If I were Max," for a moment. We're at the robotics factory. A big metal door is supposed to close on robot parts while the closed-off pod is radiated, presumably to do something robotic and dangerous – this is never explained. While working, Max's door jams. It won't fully close. Jobs are horribly scarce and so faced with being fired, Max is forced to go into the pod to unjam the door. Now then. What is the very first thing you would do if forced to go into a dangerous place to unjam a big metal door when you know that being locked inside is ever so terminally lethal? Answers on a postcard… If I were Max, I'd have placed a very big piece of metal in the door gap to make sure (ahem), to make fecking sure that if I remove the obstruction I won't be trapped by a closing door in the room while the robot parts get blasted by radiation… This is the inciting incident that kicks the movie off. He now has five days to get to Elysium or die from multiple organ failure. Why not have Max place something (anything!) jamming the door open and then have it fail? – problem solved. But no. We are expected to believe that Max is eighteen sandwiches short of a picnic, nay, an empty whicker basket with a bill from the delicatessen – what does he do? He removes the obstruction, the door closes on him and he is blasted with lethal radiation. Duh. This almost sacrifices the entire supply of suspension of disbelief. How can our hero be so monumentally stupid? I know Damon's a smart guy, not sure about Max. But sometimes you can trust your director a little too much.
That aside, Elysium has enough smarts, twists and turns to maintain a high entertainment value throughout its running time but you have to have your head firmly planted in allegorical mode. Apply real world logic and Elysium scores a little too high on the frankly-silly-meter And as expected from a director steeped in visual effects expertise, the illusions on offer are undetectably photorealistic and tremendously believable. The scale of the space station and its beauty are best appreciated on a big screen. The only logical flaw that irritates is (oddly) one of the sales pitches of the movie – the exo-skeleton employed by Max after he is surgically attached to it. With the suit's help, Max has super strength but it's never explained how this works and as a 2013 audience, you kind of just accept it. We see metal and we imagine power. It's obviously perceived as a draw hence its presence on the poster. But apart from some suitably 'yuck-factor ten' shots of the thing being grafted on to his body (does this not hurt?) we are never given any indication how metal screwed and grafted on to one's bones can impart bionic strength. Again, does this not really hurt like bone pain really hurt? Max is obviously oblivious to the suit's physical demands on his body. As he wears it from halfway until the end of the story, we can't really question its operation and still remain under the movie's spell.
Jodie Foster plays Jack Nicholson (apologies), Jack Nicholson's character – Nathan R. Jessup - in A Few Good Men. She's the one who does what needs to be done to save lives, to keep Elysium safe. She does a fine job (ahem) as a murderous murderess and it's great to see Foster in a bad guy role. Ultimately she is over-powered by District 9's Sharlto Copley's Kruger, a man so terrifying that he speaks in a broad south African accent that at times is totally unintelligible. He's the mercenary who sort of works for the army and is sort of employed by the Elysium security forces but whatever 'sort of' is, he's a power hungry hard bastard with a Brillo pad beard and an attitude that would have him drummed out of the Pacifist League. As an attempt at humour, I'd say he was a faceless soldier who at some point in the narrative is literally so. More I cannot say. Damon is ably supported by friend and ally Julio (Diego Luna) in his attempts at saving Frey's daughter stricken with leukemia. Until things go south, Max's transport to Elysium was to be provided by underground black market techno fixer, Spider (Wagner Moura) who – surprisingly as there are very few laughs in this movie - provides some comic relief once he gets to the space station (or Utopia with a gut-wrenching absence of decency and morality).
Elysium has its issues, plot points and character actions that just make you go "Hang on…" but I'd have to spoil certain parts of the film to reveal them but I'm not going to. I will leave you with the thought that original science fiction films do not come around everyday and I am thrilled by those that make it through some sort of global big budget filtering system. Yes, the idea is a retread and Max's 'open door' intelligence will forever be in question but visually Elysium is a treat from the shantytown of L.A. to the vast pristine space station and to boot, the action sequences are realistic and assured. Blomkamp is clearly an idiosyncratic talent in amongst a pool of mediocrity and supporting that, these days, is more important than ever.