Neill Blomkamp, who wrote and directed the very good “District 9,” is one of the few film creators working today who actually tries to make meaningful science-fiction movies; and with his latest effort, Elysium, he once again wraps his thought-provoking views of the world’s ills in an action-packed and visually stunning package that is palatable even to moviegoers who don’t agree, understand or even care about the message.
The name, Elysium, is taken from the Elysian Fields paradise of Greek mythology, but in the film it refers to a space-station that hovers above the Earth in the year 2154, where the rich and privileged have taken refuge away from the third-world squalor that has overtaken the planet. The floating utopian city has medical devices that can cure anything and the Elysium government goes to great lengths to keep out the lowly poor inhabitants of the polluted Earth.
Blomkamp has done something interesting with the language used in this film, which is mostly set in the 22nd century ruins of Los Angeles, where people speak with a strange mixture of Spanish, English, Canadian-French (I’m guessing) and maybe other languages. (Do I look like a linguist?) There’s a good portion of the dialogue that has English subtitles.
Matt Damon plays Max, a former convict who works in a factory constructing the security robots that in turn keep the rebellious people like him in check. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is literally history and when Max is forced by his boss into a situation where he receives a lethal dose of radiation, he’s given some medicine to ease the pain and simply sent home to die.
But Max refuses to go down without a fight and through his criminal connections he has an exoskeleton grafted to his body, which gives him the strength of the security robots, and in order to gain access to Elysium, so he can be healed of his radiation poisoning, he steals the identity of John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the wealthy owner of the factory where he was injured – all this while agreeing to help his shady friends to gain access to confidential Elysium data stored in Carlyle’s head.
There is some very cool pseudo technology and weaponry used in Elysium, some of which is sleek and futuristic and some that is ugly, dirty and downright scary. In particular, I loved Max’s interaction with the robots of this world, that do not take kindly to sarcasm or smartasses (kind of like real world law enforcement.)
Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the Elysium Secretary of Defense who is a politician trying to gain control of the space-station and she uses a nasty mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley, who you’ll recognize from District 9) to do all of her dirty work, including apprehending Max after he steals all of Elysium’s secrets from Carlyle’s brain.
As mentioned, the political commentary in Elysium touches on everything from class warfare to immigration, universal healthcare, overpopulation, crooked politics and worker rights. It’s weightier than anything else in theaters right now, but it’s all veiled in fun sci-fi action-adventure.
There are decent performances in this film, but Foster seemed underutilized and has very little screen-time with Damon, who is a real trooper spending most of the movie shirtless and with all sorts of mechanical contraptions attached to his body, not to mention his shaved head. The standout is Copley, who seems to really relish hamming it up as the evil and unpleasant Kruger.
Elysium has a very clunky subplot that involves Max’s childhood love interest, Frey (Alice Braga), and her cancer-stricken daughter. I understand why Blomkamp has a little glimmer of humanity in an otherwise very dark story, but this part of the film needed a lot more work.
At only 109 minutes running time one would think there was space to make the Max and Frey relationship at little more believable and heartfelt; and there is also a symbolic story about a hippopotamus helping a bird or some odd thing that felt very forced and even has Damon’s character shaking his head when he hears it.
Despite some minor issues, Elysium is an overall very fine science-fiction film. It is original, has great action and special effects, good performances and some thought-provoking social commentary. There’s not many 2013 films that can boast that strong of a hand. Grade: 8/10