Three shuttlecrafts hurtle toward a ringed space station in the sky. They have stolen codes that should allow them to land, but the station’s defenses are on high alert and the order is given to shoot the small ships down. Missiles are launched, sparks fly, but one of the crafts evades certain death and touches down in a plush green field aboard the orbiting haven. As soon as the ground is reached, the two dozen passengers scatter in all directions, hoping to evade capture and make a new home in a much better place then where they came from.
Welcome to Elysium, the titular space station at the heart of the new sci-fi actioner from director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and star Matt Damon. Set on a grim future earth where the teeming masses battle and sweat for survival while the super-rich get high on life in an orbiting space station fully equipped with perfect weather, endless food and the latest in miraculous medical technology, Elysium takes hot-button issues like wealth inequality and illegal immigration and blends them with Modern Times-style battles with technology and the traditional sci-fi shoot ’em ups to create a low-brow blockbuster that aspires to be something more. That may sound like a dig, but this summer it’s high praise indeed.
Damon stars as Max, an ex-car thief gone straight and working the assembly line in the hopes of saving enough money to one day buy a ticket to Elysium. After an industrial accident leaves him with only five days to live (unless he can get his body into one of Elysium’s amazing medical healing machines, of course), Max enters into a scheme with some old pals that should get him a ticket to the orbiting oasis. The plan is to steal info out of a rich industrialist’s (William Fichtner) head that could lead to revolution on a global scale, and involves a lot of shooting at and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with cop robots that show no mercy.
If the CopBots fail, there’s always Kruger (Sharlto Copley) and his band of mercenaries, working at the behest of Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium’s devious head of security. Kruger is clearly batshit crazy, and Copley goes to town creating yet another wacky character that’s worlds away from the insanity he brought to The A-Team’s Murdoch. Eventually Max and Kruger will face off with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Of course.
There is much to praise about Elysium, starting with the incredible visuals. Almost every big effects scene takes place in startling broad daylight and achieves a level of photo-realism that’s rare in today’s CGI-heavy blockbusters. In addition, the many robots that populate the movie are among the most realistic and impressive I have seen in a flick. Blomkamp also stakes his claim as master of futuristic weapons, with the many guns, prosthetic battle suits and explosives all delivering the wow. (Parents beware: The movie is also really violent, though no more so than District 9.
As for the acting, Damon does a fine job with the action but really shines in scenes where he must play against robotic tormentors and automated bureaucrats. (His trip to visit his “parole officer” is a classic that would have made Chaplin smile.) Copley is a scary hoot as Kruger, chewing the scenery from behind a bushy beard and bulked-up body. (I didn’t realize it was him until he popped up a few times and it dawned on me — hey, that’s Sharlto Copley!) Jodie Foster is fine as the villainous Delacourt, though she uses an accent that I think is meant to illustrate that she has no native land but ultimately comes off as distracting. Still, it’s good to see Foster back on the big screen in a major role.
Much has been made about the topical nature of this material, and Blomkamp the writer (he gets screenplay and director credit) does a credible job weaving in social commentary. For example, the scene I described above involving the shuttle crash-landing on Elysium plays like the many videos shot near the U.S.-Mexico border that feature a crashing mini-van followed by a wave of undocumented passengers fleeing the scene on foot only to be rounded up later by the cops. Though often set in the future, the best science fiction illuminates the current human condition at least as well as a serious drama. Blomkamp gets this, and Elysium is a much better film because of it.
That said, this is also a very expensive summer action movie. At some point the braininess goes out the window in favor of explosions, fistfights, chases and shooting. I was ok with that, even if the individual parts of Elysium somehow add up to more than the whole. The flick is an absolute must-see for fans of District 9 (in many ways it’s the same movie with a much larger budget), and I continue to be impressed with Blomkamp as a visual stylist. With Elysium he also vaults to the A-list of current directors of science fiction. Let’s hope the studios see fit to keep giving this guy money. If they do, I expect great things to come from him — even as the content of his movies makes me fear the future.