Neill Blomkamp made his first full length feature in 2009 with the dissertation on apartheid wrapped in a science-fiction movie District 9. The movie was intelligent and spectacular to look at, making parallels between the South African government’s former racist policies in the treatment of blacks to a government’s treatment of an alien race marooned on Earth. Flash forward four years, and Blomkamp is at it again, with a new sci-fi tale that again has a message that mirrors the current economic climate of the planet. It’s a message we’ve heard quite a bit about in the news, one that was played up during the 2012 US presidential election and recently brought up by Pope Francis of the Catholic church in a message from the Vatican. It’s all about the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. This is the central theme of Blomkamp’s latest film, Elysium.
Elysium, also known as the Elysian Fields, was the idyllic place in the afterlife in Greek mythology where those who lived a righteous life would spend eternity in peace and happiness. In Blomkamp’s dystopic world, Elysium is a huge space station where the wealthy have fled to from Earth, leaving behind a diseased and overpopulated planet, its poor masses crammed together in dusty cities lorded over by a robotic police state. For those poor left on the planet, Elysium is the pie in the sky, that ideal place to strive to reach, one that seems destined to be beyond most ordinary folk. Entry to this paradise in space is tightly controlled, and those who would dare to gain unauthorized entry are ruthlessly dispatched.
Max De Costa (Matt Damon) is one of those ordinary folks. Raised in an orphanage by nuns, Max has always had his eye on the sky, vowing to his friend Frey (Alice Braga) that he will one day go there. Max leads a troubled life, though, becoming a car thief, going to prison, and ending up on parole while working on the assembly line at Armadyne. The company is lorded over by its aloof CEO, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who cares only that his company turns a profit, not concerning himself with the lowly workers that make those profits possible. An industrial accident causes Max serious injury, and he’s told he only has five days to live. His need to reach Elysium is now urgent, for there people never get sick or old, and it is there where he can be healed. Getting there is no easy task, however, and Max must put himself in the service of black marketeer Spider (Wagner Moura), who needs him to pull off a heist that involves stealing data directly from a rich mark’s brain. Naturally, things do not go according to plan.
The mark in question turns out to be Max’s old boss Carlyle, and the data in his head is precious to Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who longs to place Elysium under her complete control. When the heist goes bad even though Max gets the data, he is placed squarely in Delacourt’s sights, and she sends her psychopathic agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), after him. A violent confrontation leaves Max gravely wounded, and he seeks out the aid of old friend now a nurse Frey. But Frey has problems of her own. Her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) has leukemia, and the hospital where she works can no longer treat her. Like Max, Matilda’s only hope of staying alive and getting proper treatment is getting aboard Elysium. Events come together to cause that to happen, leading to a violent struggle as the film works its way towards a predictable but satisfying climax.
Blomkamp does a great job at moving things along here, and keeps things in stark contrast. Damon’s Max is easy going and likeable, with a sense of humor shading a man who is trying very hard to straighten out his life. On the flip side, Foster’s Delacourt is clearly a villain, portrayed as cold and ruthless in her determination to not let any unauthorized people into her kingdom, regardless of the fact that Elysium could end their suffering. Foster evens gives Delacourt a cold British accent that only highlights her distance form the common man. Copley, who played the hero in Blomkamp’s prior picture, is full blown psychotic here, a man who revels in violence and whose loyalty only lasts so long as it serves his own purpose. Frey and Matilda are the innocents caught up in the middle, and they can only hope they come out of things alive.
The effects are well done, with realistic depictions of spacecraft and offers an impressive vision in the space station Elysium. The disparity between the rich and the poor is even reflected in their ships, with the shuttles used by Spider having a distinctly worn and grimy look to them, with Carlyle’s personal shuttle is sleek and shiny, looking like it just came from the showroom floor. As in District 9, some nifty weaponry and tech was on display, including an exosuit grafted onto Max, giving him greater strength, and rifles that fire bullets that explode as they approach their target. Even with the fancy guns, Kruger’s favorite weapon is a sword, which he uses well. The film is not overly packed with action, but when it comes, it can be quite intense and brutal, and the scenes are all filmed well, giving us a clear view of the carnage on the screen.
Elysium is another intelligent sci-fi movie from director Neill Blomkamp, giving us a timely message and while it is presented pretty clearly to the audience, the film never insults the audience or talks down to them. It presents its view of rich vs. poor without ever becoming preachy or overly emotional. It moves a t a brisk pace, always holding your attention for its 109 minute running time. The movie proves that District 9 was no fluke, and hopefully this director can continue the trend of presenting us with these well made tales that mirror the issues in our own society, just as good science fiction is supposed to do. Elysium is well worth checking out for its story and believable action sequences. If you enjoyed District 9, this one shouldn’t disappoint.
Elysium is now available on DVD/ Blu-ray.
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