NEILL BLOMKAMP’S ELYSIUM is understandably compared with his breakthrough hit, “District 9” – a gripping story about apartheid and xenophobia imagined via a narrative about aliens in South Africa. Sci-fi has always been a great form for presenting the issues of the ‘real world’ through the lens of an unreal one (Remember, for instance, “Wall-E’s” clever comment on the destruction of the planet or “Battlestar Galactica” which dealt with issues of race and politics in America with a subtlety and intelligence that won it its millions of followers).
Compared with these high-water marks, “Elysium” pales in comparison. The story is set in a dystopian 2154, when the have’s live lives of sybaritic ease on Elysium, a space station hovering above earth, and the 99% live in overcrowded, post-apocalyptic squalor. All of earth, apparently, has become a third world slum that looks remarkably like the favelas of Rio. So, the rich live in their enclosed, gated communities where the poor aren’t allowed. Not unlike Australia and its boat people policies. Get it?
As far as analogies go, “Elysium” ain’t no “District 9”. But once you go beyond that disappointment, this is an edge of the seat action movie. By far the best big budget summer blockbuster we’ve had so far.
The story follows five days in the life of Max da Costa (Matt Damon) an ex-con factory worker who is poisoned by radiation after an accident in the factory. He is given five days to live and is determined to find a way to Elysium to get cured. (There the homes all come equipped with machines that look like tanning beds but that miraculously remove defective genes, rebuild faces that have been exploded by grenades and that probably also offer instant liposuctions). To get there, he is introduced to Spider (Wagna Moura), a rebel commander; and, en passant, an ex childhood friend and nurse, Freya (Alice Braga who we saw in “I am Legend”). She, coincidentally, has a daughter with a few days to live and is in need of an Elysium cure as well. To pay for his journey, Max, fitted with an exoskeleton, must kidnap rich businessman Carlyle (William Finchtner – who always plays nasty guys. He was the bank manager in “The Dark Knight”) in order to hack into his brain and pass himself off as a citizen of Elysium. In his way stand armies of droids controlled by Elysium’s head of security (Jodie Foster, with a weird accent) and her thuggish henchman, Kruger (Sharlto Copely – the protagonist of “District 9”).
Blomkamp offers us a convincing world one hundred years in the future – his banged up spacecraft, crowded hospitals and robot assistants look more like real objects than the imagined designs of an art director. Really, that’s all we ask from these blockbuster action movies: give us enough realism to allow for our willing suspension of disbelief. Ground us in something we can relate to, so that you gain our permission to take us “to infinity and beyond”. It may be a simple ask, but pretty much all of the mega-bucks offerings this year have failed on that requirement.
And apart from “Olympus has Fallen” and “World War Z”, the action movies have also all failed to keep us gripped. “Elysium” is rare in that it actually offers moments of suspense and tension. And, despite the complicated plot, it creates enough momentum for us to want to know what’ll happen next.
Let’s not forget that it is after all, an action movie, so there isn’t much room for character development (and frankly, the motivations of the characters are often very sketchy). But, in Matt (wearing Daniel Craig’s muscular bod), you know you’re with a guy who will live up to a sense of nobility, shrug off multiple wounds and kill the bad guys. And one look at Jodie in her pale cream power suit mumbling false pleasantries to some newcomers to Elysium, lets you in right away that she’s bad through and through.
Badass Jodie – itself worth the price of the ticket.