While spaceships and gadgets are sometimes pure fun, the best science fiction also explores ideas, examining the present human condition through the metaphor of future worlds. Elysium starts along this path well, but then abandons its ideas for a brute-force ending that leaves it drowning in missed potential.
2154: The Earth is overpopulated and environmentally ruined. Decades before, the most privileged members of society left for Elysium, an orbiting habitat with beautiful landscapes, artificially-controlled weather and an idyllic lifestyle. They also took all the advanced medical technology with them – citizens of Elysium can heal any illness or injury instantly. Naturally, this incurs some measure of jealousy from the rest of humanity below, who often send up illegal shuttles to try and get aboard. Elysium’s Secretary of Defence, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is icily resolved to keep trespassers out, by whatever means necessary.
On Earth, Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict trying to live straight, when a factory accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation, giving him five days to live. Desperate to heal himself on Elysium, Max agrees to take on a data theft job from shady fixer Spider (Wagner Moura), who can offer him a shuttle ticket. Part of the job involves grafting an exo-skeletal harness onto his body, which boosts his strength and gives him a brain-controlled computer interface. But Max picks the wrong data to steal, and soon he’s being hunted by Delacourt’s sleeper agent, a homicidal maniac named Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s previous major film, District 9, was a sci-fi allegory of South African Apartheid, and Elysium has similar themes, expanded to the worldwide restlessness of the 99 per cent. Both movies also look similar, with dusty streetscapes crowded with the disenfranchised. Blomkamp has an eye for detail, and his visual effects are largely seamless and utterly realistic, which helps distract from the rather predictable plot.
But it’s surprising that, given the obvious interest he has in these ideas, Blomkamp should give up on them so easily. Representing the two sides of the societal coin, Max and Delacourt would seem to be matched foes, battling over the legitimacy of withholding valuable aid from the world’s neediest. Instead, Delacourt exits the film prematurely, the two barely exchanging words, as Blomkamp opts for a loud, violent action climax. (Very violent, in fact – believe me when I say this Kruger is not a nice fellow.)
I have mixed feelings about the performances. Damon is quite good – his everyman charm convinces us that a loser like Max still has a noble soul, and his action credentials have been well established since the Bourne movies. Alice Braga also does a great job as Frey, Max’s childhood friend, a woman who has her own reasons to get to Elysium. But as the crazy Kruger, Copley’s over-the-top nastiness nearly steals the picture or overwhelms it, depending on your point of view. Foster is criminally underused, and struggles with a hybrid accent that wanders all over the place.
It’s not that Elysium isn’t entertaining. It’s just that, like its transit shuttles of desperate people hurling themselves upward, it falls short of its sky-high ideals.
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