When you build up a wall to keep people out and blast the symphony to block out the screams of the huddled and hunched masses, they climb on top of each other to make it over. Starved, hungry, desperate — they will sell their souls for a glimpse of something that isn’t stained with blood and wrecked by hopelessness. This is human nature, this is animal instinct, this is the message at the center of Neill Blomkamp’s fantastic Elysium.
Forgive me, but I’m one of those people that believes that the very best science fiction speaks as much to our present and our current fractured state of being as it does to our future. That doesn’t mean that I am incapable of enjoying the more explode-y sci-fi films that aim more for the gut and less for the brain, but give me Children of Men and give me Sunshine over the Star Trek Into Darkness’ of this world.
Give me District 9, Neill Blomkamp‘s stunning feature debut and Elysium, this ambitious follow-up whose winning virtue is that it comes close to being all things to all people.
A human tale about struggle, hope, determination, and desperation — Matt Damon is Max, an ex-con stuck working a factory job in Los Angeles in the year 2154.
Believe it or not, Max is one of the lucky ones, but he’s got a smart mouth and that puts him at odds with the droid police force and his boss.
Ordered into a risky situation by said boss, Max sustains an injury that will kill him in five days, thus setting him off on a mad dash to find passage to Elysium, a star shaped space station that sustains and occupies the rich and coddled with swimming pools, cocktail parties, Kelly green landscapes, cloudless skies, and restorative med bays that heal all ailments in an instant.
Max has always dreamed of going to Elysium, but as he is turned into a literal Frankenstein monster and painfully fitted with a mech suit to help carry his ailing body through a daring data heist (data that can bring down Elysium or alter its power structure, making matters worse) for an underworld gimp pimp known as Spider (overplayed by Wagner Moura), the dream becomes a nightmare.
For Damon, all of this is about survival, whispering “This ain’t goona kill me” through gritted teeth. He doesn’t want to save the day for his fellow man, he just wants to live.
Complicating matters, for him, is his childhood sweetheart (Frey, as played by Alice Braga), her Leukemia afflicted daughter, and Kruger — a doubley mad mercenary that has been dispatched by Delacourt, the prim acid bitch that keeps Elysium free of the filthy prisoners of Earth by any means necessary.
Jodie Foster plays Delacourt like a rusted claw hammer wrapped in velvet. Painting Eden’s gatekeeper as a power hungry politician, monster, and woman of refinement. She has evolved past human emotion and it is a transformation unlike anything we have seen from Foster in quite some time.
In anyone else’s hands, this role could have polluted the film with high camp, but Foster gives just enough to shock us, revealing a villain who is convinced, at a cellular level, that she is on the side of right and separate and apart from the inhabitants of Earth. To her, they are bugs. She’s Adolf Eichmann with an eye on becoming Hitler.
As Kruger, Sharlito Copley plays an extremely colorful henchman, occupying the screen with menace. He is the chaos, kidnapping Fey and her sick daughter, gunning for Max and the valuable data that he now holds in his head. Unfortunately, as the film goes on, Kruger becomes less an interesting side player, and more a two dimensional main villain, inexplicably starting a palace coup on top of the one that Foster’s character is trying to orchestrate.
It’s here that the film loses it’s way for a short time, complicating the run-up to the end in an effort to add more smash and bash fighting and big action moments to the film. Basically, Elysium embraces its summer blockbuster responsibilities in this bundle of minutes in the third act before it evens itself out.
Matt Damon delivers a valuable but not stellar performance that improves as the reels roll (or the pixels whatever…) and Blomkamp falls into a few traps, but ultimately delivers what may be the best sci-fi film that I have seen since the previously mentioned Children of Men.
Elysium is visually arresting, covering its dual worlds with both a slick sheen of affluence and a dirt bath. Blomkamp ratchets up the CGI effects as well, melding his ambition with an economical and grounded approach to effects sequences and overall spectacle.
The result is a lived in and real universe that never pulls the audience out of the story, and as was the case with the $30 million dollar District 9, Elysium feels as if it cost twice as much as it did, even though it cost more than $100 million.
The way that Blomkamp constructs and portrays an action scene has a lot to do with that, and here, we’re seeing hand-held camera work, artfully applied slow-motion, and a video-game aesthetic peppered throughout the big fight scenes.
Visual wow is useless without story, though, and that is the real star of this film: Blomkamp’s very smart and very original script.
Themes of nuclear class warfare, extreme immigration, and the rationing of healthcare strike a nerve because those themes echo fears about our present course.
Is Elysium prophetic? Probably not, because (as has been said before) we’re naturally inclined to burden our view of the future with the weight of the present, but it could happen or the future could be even worse.
Despite that, though, Elysium should make us think about the state of things, the walls that we already have up and the growing ease with which we display human viciousness and indifference; and for a film to entertain and inspire debate and introspection like that… well, that is a rare treat.