Science fiction exaggerates. While a modern day film must tread softly, a sci-fi film can scream its point in a futuristic setting that masks (if only slightly) a social critique. Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” told a striking story about immigrant politics in Johannesburg. Before that, the source material — the short film “Alive in Joburg” — includes real interviews with South Africans discussing how Zimbabwean refugees used to describe intergalactic aliens. Brilliant.
With such imaginative ideas, even Oscar-awarded with a Best Picture nomination, Blomkamp’s sophomore installment didn’t really stand a chance. More visually innovative than “D9” but far less inventive, “Elysium” is entertaining, but particulars of the storyline lack the needed finesse to add this one to the sci-fi canon.
Earth is a global slum, and the privileged few participated in the most extreme urban flight in world history, relocating to a space station complete with a robot staff to accommodate all their needs. But those darned earthlings will do anything to reach that better life, especially when Elysium has Med-Pods that can heal any disease or ailment in moments.
Officially, illegal immigrants must be detained and deported back to Earth, but Elysium higher-up Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) oversteps her order with the help of seedy mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who destroys incoming ships from the ground, keeping Elysium’s hands clean. Sure, her superiors reprimand her, but they’re more concerned with bureaucracy than lost lives. After all, they can’t afford delays in production back on Earth where people like Max (Matt Damon) spend their days in factories creating the robots that control earthlings’ lives and cater to Elysiumians.
Sadly, when equipment malfunctions, fatally exposing, say Max, to radiation, those Med-Pods feel like the physical difference between heaven and hell. It’s no surprise then that Max returns to the life of crime he once knew in hopes of reaching Elysium. What’s a guy to do when preserving your own life becomes a terrorist act? OK, his mechanical exoskeleton complete with the strength of your run-of-the-mill robot doesn’t prove his innocence. Just make sure that sociopathic nemesis, Kruger, doesn’t get his own exo-suit for a final showdown.
This is hardly original material. The best of dystopian sci-fi challenges contemporary norms and long-held beliefs by projecting them into the future. What happens if capitalism continues completely unchecked? Organizations like Armadyne, the company behind robot and Elysium technology, outgrow the government, and apathetic CEOs, like John Carlyle (William Fichtner), determine Elysium citizenship because they can write code, not because they are ethically qualified.
Sadly, privilege always tends to favor a lack of critical thought. The citizens of Elysium perceive the lower class as threats to safety — burdens on society trying to steal hard-earned benefits — but we, the educated moviegoer, see something different: an entire society built on the exploitation of others. Sound familiar?
The most compelling part of “Elysium” — after the dazzling CGI and fanboy-awesome weaponry Max and Kruger wield — is not the premise, which makes its way to the big screen every few years. Instead, it’s the lack of hope. This isn’t a story about revolutionaries finally having their day. Max and his smuggler buddy, Spider (Wagner Moura), don’t seek the end of hierarchal society, yet events unfold and they respond, kicking and screaming. Like Wikus (played by “Elysium” villain Copley) in “D9”, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them,” to quote Shakespeare. “Elysium” doesn’t concern itself with separate individuals, but change “thrust upon” unwilling old dogs. Sometimes natural human progress doesn’t work fast enough when lives are on the line.
Alas, discussing “Elysium” might provide more lasting value than the film itself, which proves a touch more forgettable than the sci-fi tent pole, “D9”. But what it lacks in narrative cohesion — like unnecessary flashbacks of Max’s youth at a Catholic orphanage — it makes up for in how loud it tells its story.
It would be easy to dismiss “Elysium” by placing it within the larger context of science fiction. It’s not responding to anything specific but re-appropriating the trope of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and H.G. Wells. Right? Hopefully we don’t require that kind of artistic distance to understand and, more importantly, apply the point.
Such an approach does little more than become dinnertime fodder forgotten by the second course. I prefer a more pragmatic viewing experience that doesn’t end after the credits. Otherwise, we’re just looking down on Earth, indifferent to the plight of those beyond our borders, whether those borders are a great wall, a community gate or a space station.
According to Roger Ebert:
In a summer of antiseptic effects spectacles, “Elysium” stands out for its grime and intensity, as well as the bluntness of its class allegory. The movie won’t win many points for originality or logic. But when the blockbuster competition wants only new ways to repackage Wolverine and Superman, it’s weirdly refreshing to watch a film that seeks new ways to repackage “Mad Max,” “Blade Runner,” “Robocop,” and elements from Kathryn Bigelow and David Cronenberg.
The film is set in 2154, when the planet has been ravaged by disease, pollution, and overpopulation. The wealthiest now live on a space station called Elysium, which can be seen in the clouds from Earth below. Max (Matt Damon) has grown up watching Elysium from his rundown, largely Latino L.A. neighborhood. A reformed car thief now working in a grueling factory job—he’s lucky to have it, he’s sneeringly informed—Max is trying to keep things together in a society openly rigged against the poor.
It’s not easy. Amid a gritty cityscape filled with cluttered streets and dirty, crowded hospitals, a robot police force makes arrests indiscriminately, with no apparent restraints on brutality. Sentencing is automated, administered by a droid whose voice has the kind of crackle you hear when ordering at a drive-thru. No sooner is Max done with his latest legal entanglement than a radiation accident at the plant leaves him with only days to live. He’s done for—unless he can get to Elysium, where healing pods fix all medical problems in seconds.
On this space “habitat,” we follow the defense secretary (Jodie Foster), who offers a vigorous defense of her right to use unlimited force to benefit the liberty of a few. In a not-so-subtle commentary on the immigration debate, she shoots down refugees who try to land. She’s also plotting a coup with the help of a wormy CEO (William Fichtner) on Earth. Max’s attempt to track down the latter man and download information from his brain—echoes of “Strange Days”—makes for one of the film’s most excitingly absurd sequences, as the hero and his former auto-thief partner (Diego Luna) intercept this bigwig’s crashing private jet.
Drawing on an international cast, “Elysium” is rich with topical allusions. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” (2009) was a naked Apartheid allegory, and there’s a continuation of that thread here. (It’s surely no accident that Foster character, while variously parroting Cheney and Goldwater, speaks with a South African accent.) “Elysium” also nods to the healthcare fight and the growing income gap, so it’s a disappointment that the film ultimately doesn’t have much cogent to say—beyond having a child make the observation that helping people is a good way to make friends.
Still, although it lacks the full conceptual punch of “District 9,” “Elysium” is less erratic as filmmaking. (There’s no mock-documentary conceit to abandon this time.) For a villain, it offers not only Foster’s character, but Sharlto Copley as her vicious felon henchman, as volatile and cruel a presence as we’ve seen on screen in some time. When he interrogates Max’s childhood friend, now a nurse (Alice Braga) with a daughter (Emma Tremblay) dying of leukemia, he momentarily feigns sympathy: “I don’t believe in committing violent acts in front of kids,” he taunts, leaving viewers bracing for the worst.
“Elysium” is involving enough that it’s tempting to forgive its numerous logical flaws, but much of what happens doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Let’s start with the medical pods. The film is vague about how numerous they are, and their healing powers barely stop short of resurrection. That seems less like a plausible vision of the future and more like a screenwriter’s contrivance for keeping favorite characters alive.
And while it’s noble for Max and black-market dealer Spider (Wagner Moura) to want to grant Elysian citizenship and healthcare to every person on Earth, the movie makes no attempt to address the scarcity issue that’s allegedly given rise to this dystopia in the first place. By limiting the Earth-bound action to Los Angeles, the film leaves questions dangling about the rest of the world while at the same time squandering an opportunity for imagination.
Class disparity is one of the oldest archetypes in sci-fi movies, dating from “Metropolis” at least, and idea-wise, “Elysium” doesn’t hold its own even by recent standards of the subgenre. (Check out on Andrew Niccol’s underrated “In Time,” in which the haves and have-nots use the minutes they have to live as currency.) But as a vehicle for putting Matt Damon in a bionic getup on a messianic action quest, “Elysium” has enough grist to power through.