By Gary Dowell
South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp became a big blip on the radar with his feature-length debut District 9. A hefty slice of sci-fi message movie that put a compelling and effective spin on apartheid, it was a message movie that went down easy and managed the tricky alchemy of melding such a weighty subject to science fiction.
His follow-up feature Elysium has a bigger budget and more Hollywood-ness to go with it; thus, the cast is more A-level, the social commentary is less allegorical and more blunt, and there’s more emphasis on action. It’s still an entertaining and thought-provoking ride, but the subtlety is gone.
In Blomkamp’s cyberpunk-influenced vision of the future circa 2154, the Earth is one big third-world slum, a global favela populated by countless desperate souls struggling through the dual collapse of the economy and the environment. Meanwhile, the ultra-wealthy of the world have pulled up stakes for the ultimate gated community, a massive space station called Elysium, curvilinear Beverly Hills as interpreted by Arthur C. Clarke, all sparkling swimming pools, carefully manicured lawns, ultra-modern chateaus encapsulated within its own atmosphere. Its occupants keep themselves young and healthy via regular use of high-tech medical bays that can cure just about any ailment — because, you know, botox is so 21st century. They also hoard their lofty perch for themselves, shooting down most of the shuttles carrying illegal visitors seeking cures for various conditions, and swiftly arresting and deporting the handful who make it through.
Enter Max (Matt Damon), who once dreamed as an orphan child of earning enough money for tickets to Elysium for himself and friend Frey (Alice Braga). Instead, he became a petty thief and ex-con trapped in a maze of robot probation officers and a dead-end factory job building the androids who function as robot security for the wealthy. A toxic dose of radiation while on the job ultimately leads to Max pulling a data heist for would-be revolutionary Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for a shuttle ride to Elysium; the info they steal draws the attention of Elysium’s draconian secretary of defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her mad-dog henchman Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
Needless to say, Blomkamp’s politics are front and center; fortunately, he doesn’t incessantly hammer viewers over the head with them, preferring instead to float his ideas into the open and let viewers make of them what they will. The downside is that the characters who populate Elysium more often come across as pulpy archetypes rather than fully formed figures. Delacourt is the quintessential bureaucrat gone to seed, William Fichtner is an off-the-shelf evil corporate boss, Spider is the Che Guevara of a blasted future, and Kruger is your standard psychotic henchman — and a creepy-fun one at that, though it’s never made clear why Delacourt would rely on someone so unpredictable. The performances are top-notch at least, and Damon does an excellent job of fleshing out Max as a compelling anti-hero more interested in saving himself than the world.
Those quibbles aside, it must be said that Blomkamp proves himself to be a capable storyteller, maintaining a gripping pace peppered with impressive, inventive, and often bloody action sequences. Elysium itself is a fantastically rendered place, and one used sparingly. Most of the movie takes place in a Los Angeles that is even more squalid than one might think possible, a place of retro-future technology scavenged from trash heaps and seething humanity that owes much to the works of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, as well as Blade Runner, Metropolis, and even Mad Max. It’s rare that such an ugly setting is so much fun to look at.