In 2009, writer-director Neill Blomkamp impressed critics and audiences with District 9, a gore-laden science-fiction adventure that also managed to talk about racism, oppression, the perils of private armies and technological dehumanization. Blomkamp successfully pulls off a similar trick in his newest film, Elysium, where explosions and flying body parts accompany an argument about class warfare and economic unfairness.
Although the plot does not hold up under close examination, the presentation is fast-paced, exciting and visually memorable, while also wrenching some legitimate emotion out of the audience — and asking it to consider deeper questions than whose blood will be flowing by film’s end.
Elysium is set in 2154, where the population of Earth has divided dramatically. Above the planet is Elysium, a gigantic space station where the privileged live in luxurious, verdant surroundings, their every need attended to. On Earth itself are the underclassed masses, beset by pollution and decay, filth at every turn and working lives where they are viewed as so expendable that the Elysium dwellers decline even to share good health care with them.
Max Da Costa has grown up on the surface, but has not grown well. Orphaned, he has been assured that he is meant to be special, and has made one devoted friend, Frey. But as a boy, longing for more than the pittance he had, Max turned to crime. Now, as a grown-up (played by Matt Damon), Max is trying to lead an honorable life. But his criminal record makes him a target for android-driven law enforcement, and he has lost his connection to Frey (Alice Braga), who has grown up to be a nurse.
Max and Frey are hardly alone in wanting better lives. While surface dwellers are forbidden on Elysium, renegade shuttles regularly try to land there, if only so the inhabitants can take brief advantage of Elysium’s advantages over Earth. But as much as the people of Elysium have, some want more. They include Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the ruthless overseer of Elysium’s security. With help from people like the sadistic Kruger (Sharlto Copley, whom you may remember from District 9), she eagerly and sometimes illegally deals with Earth’s people, and is impatient with the kindlier impulses of her leaders. But she may have found an ally in John Carlyle (William Fichtner), an industrialist with a secret to controlling Elysium and by extension Earth.
The big players’ interests intersect with Max’s after he receives a lethal dose of radiation on the job — at Carlyle’s company — and needs to get medical help on Elysium to survive. He agrees to one more criminal act in exchange for a trip into space — and in doing so sets in motion events that will affect everyone in both worlds.
As was the case with District 9, Blomkamp here creates a richly dismal landscape; indeed, his grimy Earth is far more well-drawn than the more idealized estates of Elysium. Earth is a place where almost everyone has stopped caring about their environment; because there is no reason to believe anything will get better, the people just add their own rot and carelessness to the mess. Life, as well, is full of indifference and a sense of worthlessness. When Max balks at a dangerous move on the job, his supervisor warns that someone else will do it; when Max is irradiated, the medical response is no more than some painkillers to ease his fatal collapse.
There are plot holes, too, some quite large when you stop to think. But Blomkamp works his way past them not only with the look of the movie but with a pace that seldom lets the audience pause for long; action piles on top of action, fight on fight, with skill that separates this from something like a G.I. Joe movie, and an aggressiveness that contrasts with a slower, thinner dystopian meditation like Oblivion.
Damon, who has often shown both his action side and his vulnerability on-screen, blends the two here. Still, he has little time to contemplate anything while oppressed by an indifferent ruling class, and later pursued by Delacourt’s murderous henchmen. For the audience, too, let the ideas seep in for consideration later — after you have soaked up all the thrills that Elysium offers.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www,ohio,com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.