Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, and William Fichtner
Written and Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Here’s a film that explores and denounces the injustices in the U.S. health care system, immigration, and social classes. What’s this, a new Michael Moore documentary? Nope… It’s the sci-fi summer blockbuster Elysium. Of course, this futuristic action movie probes these social and political issues through means of allegory; a strategy which the sci-fi genre is known for. Fortunately, writer/director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) is such a gifted storyteller that the heavy-handedness of his screenplay doesn’t prevent Elysium from being both wildly entertaining and one of the best sci-fi movies in a long time.
While District 9 used its extraterrestrial plot to cover the horrors of apartheid, Elysium goes even further with its socioeconomic criticisms. It’s commendable that Blomkamp strives to be socially responsible while delivering hard-hitting entertainment. The movie harkens back the futuristic thrillers of the 80’s. In the same vein as the post- apocalyptic Mad Max, most of the Earthlings in this film are heavily tattooed and look like the attendees of a punk rock concert. As with Robocop, Matt Damon’s character’s human body is transformed into somewhat of a machine, with a mechanical suit of armor power drilled into his exoskeleton. Throw in a little bit of Total Recall (the original) for good measure, and you’ve got a movie that isn’t wholly original, but completely satisfying nonetheless.
The year is 2154, and two classes of people exist. The wealthy (the 1%) live on an advanced space station orbiting above Earth known as Elysium. There is no war, disease, or poverty, and all of its denizens live in luxurious mansions. The rest of the population (the 99%) lives in the ravaged wasteland that is now known as Earth, with every city consisting of slums. The film is set in Los Angeles, which now appears to be entirely made up of Latinos plus Matt Damon. Damon plays Max, a former orphan with dreams of one day making enough money to buy a ticket to Elysium. Due to an accident at his factory job, Max is exposed to a lethal amount of radiation and given only five days to live. Seeing as every home on Elysium is stocked with a machine that can cure all diseases and heal all damage to the human body (because the rich have access to the best healthcare), Max is determined to get to Elysium and save himself.
Jodie Foster gives an odd and hammy performance as the ruthless Delacourt. First off, the origin of her accent is inscrutable. Her inflection is a little South African and a little British, often jumping back and forth between the two. Her character is responsible for preventing Earth citizens (immigrants) from illegally entering Elysium. She does this by employing a mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who is positioned on Earth and shoots rockets at the unidentified spaceships, no questions asked. Speaking of Copley, he’s the highlight of the movie as the sadistic madman Kruger. Copley is so different from the inane hero whom he played in District 9 that I didn’t recognize him at first. He dons a Grizzly Adams beard and put on a bunch of muscle mass to play this remorseless killing machine.
Elysium features some of the most inventive and exciting action sequences in a long time. Blomkamp has conceived futuristic weapons that add a lot to the ingenuity of the battles. He also utilizes police cyborgs that look as if they could be the robotic cousins of the prawns in District 9. One of the best things about the action sequences is that they’re all story driven, with nothing is gratuitously thrown in to meet a summer blockbuster quota. The first real action set-piece doesn’t occur until about 45 minutes into the movie, and it’s a showstopper well worth the wait. The last third of the film is more action-heavy, with an inevitable mano-a-mano between Damon and Copley which you’ll be looking forward to the whole movie.
Credit is due to Sony Pictures for allowing Blomkamp to realize his dark vision with a necessary R-rating, a classification not typically acceptable for movies with a $115 million budget. But seeing as other summer blockbusters such as Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger came with a price tag of $225 million and $215 million, respectively, we’re living in a time where $100 million budgets are considered relatively cheap. Blomkamp has a thing for making heads and bodies explode, with at least half a dozen characters meeting their demise in such a manner. The film is set in a grim, ugly, and violent world, so a watered down PG-13 rating would have rang false. For fans of some good old-fashioned gore, you’ll get quite a few ‘money shots’.
For lack of a better term, most of Elysium is pretty ‘badass’. Blomkamp doesn’t quite reach the full potential of his ambitious idea (we don’t learn a whole lot about the inner-workings of Elysium), but the material here is much smarter than in your average sci-fi thriller. As with the Bourne franchise, Damon proves once again to be a formidable action hero, while Blomkamp demonstrates that he’s no fluke. Between District 9 and now Elysium, I can’t wait to see what sci-fi boundaries he crosses next.