Elysium review: third world rock from the sun

Elysium green light Wagner Moura Matt Damon

Neill Blomkamp cements his science-fiction credentials as a filmmaker with a genre vision the likes of which we haven’t seen since the socially conscious SF of the 1970s.
I’m “biast” (pro): love District 9

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s not the revelation that his District 9 was, but with Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp cements his science-fiction credentials as a filmmaker with a genre vision the likes of which we haven’t seen since the socially conscious SF of the 1970s. In fact, the modern videogame-ish visuals aside, the film Elysium reminds me most of is 40-year-old Soylent Green. Certainly, Blomkamp’s depiction of the desperate poverty of the people of a depleted Earth — Los Angeles in 2154 looks like the favelas of Brazil or the townships of South Africa, with the suggestion that the whole planet is now essentially third-world — is a similarly hellish vision… and yet it’s one that divides the haves from the have-nots in a way that is incisively of the 20-teens moment. For in Blomkamp’s future-that-is-now, the wealthy have decamped to a luxurious wheel in space that hangs in the sky. The 99.99 percent are taunted every day by the privilege above that they are excluded from. (Rare, too, in 21st-century SF is the notion of the future as bleak, and of futuristic imagery once full of promise and optimism, as the space wheel of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was, turned into a menacing, misleading lie. Only the Wachowskis with The Matrix — 14 years ago — managed a similar sly trick recently.)

But if this is Soylent Green, it is, perhaps, Soylent Green with a solution, so it’s not all bleak. And this is a uniquely 20-teens idea, too: that even on a planet that is getting used up, there is still more then enough to go around, it’s just that we’re not sharing it fairly. So here we have Earthbound humans taking outrageous risks to sneak onto Elysium, that elite space station, just for the chance to lie in a med-pod and be cured, in seconds, of whatever terrible sickness or injury ails them. (There’s a black market in tattoos that ID one as a citizen of Elysium eligible for such treatment.) It costs, apparently, literally nothing to use a med-pod: no resources, except perhaps the energy to run the device, are required. But it is hoarded jealously by Elysium’s .001 percent, out of pure meanness, it would seem.

This is the world of Max (Matt Damon: Promised Land, We Bought a Zoo), a former felon now factory worker — he helps build the army of robot cops that police Earth, literally creating the tools of his own oppression — who had all but given up on the impossible dream of his boyhood of getting to Elysium. But now an accidental mega-dosing of radiation on the assembly line means he’ll be dead in days unless he can get to a med-pod…

The path to achieving that goal is littered with all manner of intriguing science-fictional concepts: technological ones, such as a brain-to-brain data heist and exoskeleton powered armor that gets drilled directly into one’s body rather than being worn like a suit (I haven’t come across this before); and sociological ones, such as the android bureaucrats those on Earth are forced to deal with that, like the robot cops, remove all possibility of human empathy or understanding from necessary interactions, further dehumanizing the masses the elite would rather not have to deal with at all. It’s a tiny bit disappointing that, amongst all this imaginative speculation, Blomkamp couldn’t see past tedious clichés about women in cinematic storytelling: Alice Braga (On the Road, Predators) is here as Max’s friend Frey, and she has nothing to do but take care of Max — literally: she’s a nurse — and then require rescuing by him from Elysium operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley: Europa Report, The A-Team). Kruger’s rapey threats toward Frey are, I suppose, meant to illustrate what a terrifying psychopath he is — which works; Copley is truly chilling — but surely there were other ways to accomplish that. In fact, there’s no reason at all why Braga and Damon couldn’t have swapped roles, particularly with the exoskeleton to even out the physical differences between her and male badasses. Having Jodie Foster (Carnage, The Brave One) on hand to play a villainous Elysium politician doesn’t quite make up for the lazy easiness of Frey as an impetus for Max, particularly when there are so many other things already driving him.

Things get a bit rushed and silly at the end, too: I’m not sure the ultimate solution for the big problems of this world makes much sense… although the situation that allows it is, on the other hand, beautifully representative of the utter disdain the people of Elysium have for the rest of humanity. But Elysium’s flaws are forgivable, because it tries so much and reaches so far and mostly succeeds. Not many filmmakers in Hollywood dare like this at all. Having something to say that doesn’t sound like a greeting card is an almost astonishing place for a summer blockbuster to be.

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