Given today’s movie-making climate, you have to give Elysium some credit for even existing at all. After breaking through with District 9 four year ago, a critical and commercial hit made on a modest budget, young South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp probably had numerous opportunities to take on a reboot of this or a sequel to that or whatever. Instead he’s stuck to his guns, producing a (several times delayed) science fiction offering of his own writing, all power to him.
It has a vastly greater budget, but Elysium bears some similarities to District 9. It again revolves around an obvious analogy for class inequality, but there are no aliens now. The Earth has become overpopulated and over-polluted; metropolises have devolved into giant slums. There are few jobs, and hours are long and hard. The planet’s wealthy elite have long since left their planet of birth, escaping to a giant, circular space station called Elysium, where they live peaceful lives of luxury. They also possess medical technology that can cure all aliments, readily available to all ‘Elysium citizens’, while the people of Earth have no such access. The developed/developing country immigration parallel is unavoidable. One earth citizen, ex-convict Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) suddenly finds his life in danger, and an opportunity to try and get to Elysium and ‘change everything’.
The first part of Elysium is stunning stuff; Blomkamp creates the future world wonderfully. It’s full of great little touches that makes the ravaged Earth really feel lived in. Even the smallest details appear to have considerable effort gone into their design. Elysium itself and all the space sequences are likewise gorgeously realised with CGI. Otherwise, it’s a film that bears more resemblance to the sci-fi/action movies of the eighties and early-nineties to most of what we get today (The Terminator, RoboCop, etc.). Along with visuals and world-building, another strength Blomkamp possesses is his handling of action set-pieces, which dominate the film’s final act, and are always exciting, if in places a little ‘video-gamey’.
Matt Damon gives an engaging performance as our unlikely hero, finding himself tasked with much greater responsibilities than he intended. His character might be nicely fleshed out, but the same can’t be said for his adversaries. Ruling up in Elysium is Jodie Foster as the Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt. She’s like a James Bond villain, power and evil cranked up to ludicrous levels, coolly ordering the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians without a trace of concern. She’s not helped by Foster, normally an excellent actress, adopting a peculiar accent that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere and proves consistently off-putting. The ground level villain Damon must contend with is Kruger (District 9 star Sharlto Copley), who’s cartoonish in a very different way to Foster, a rogue agent employed by Elysium, he’s a violent maniac who proudly enjoys killing. Indeed basically every bad guy in this movie is irredeemably, absurdly so. At one point Damon’s earth boss (William Fichtner) unashamedly imparts that the cleanliness of his medical centre sheets are of more importance to him than the life of an employee.
Like so many futuristic, technology-filled sci-fi efforts, Elysium is riddled with inner logical problems. Several elements of the grand scheme make little sense when analysed, the all-healing Med-Bays being the prime example. When you essentially introduce the idea that, in this world, death can be cured quickly and easily, it throws all sorts of other questions onto the table. The conclusion of the film is the most troublesome of all, which I can’t really discuss without spoiling it, but let’s just say it may not result in the resolution it appears to.
Elysium is an ambitious, enjoyable, beautifully designed and realised film brimming with ideas, with social points that might be very blunt, but at least it’s trying. If one was so inclined, one could pick it apart to reveal many logical problems, but like last year’s Looper, it’s reasonably easy to just ignore most of these and go along with the film for a relentlessly exciting thrill ride, and that’s how Elysium is best enjoyed.