In the year 2159 two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster), a government official, will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn't stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max (Matt Damon) is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarised worlds.
Amid a US summer of moronic spectacle (Kick-Ass 2), empty gestures (Oblivion) and unrequited franchise opportunities (The Lone Ranger? seriously?), I was rather looking forward to Elysium—the sophomore film from South African director Neill Blomkamp. His 2009 debut, District 9, was both unexpected and impressive, a ghetto-level view of human-alien relations inspired directly by the townships of Soweto—a far more interesting and provocative take on the genre than most contemporary SF.
In an Australia increasingly deformed by its own sense of entitlement [...] I found myself newly engaged with the film
Inevitably, those hopes were disappointed. And while I’d like to think that Blomkamp has merely succumbed to the standard pitfall of an independent director making the transition to Hollywood, compromising his sensibility in a too-strenuous attempt to serve his commercial masters, I suspect it actually reveals something else, a certain fundamental naïveté in his storytelling ability. (His District 9 co-writer—and wife—Terri Tatchell, is conspicuous by her absence here.) Either way, the result is a work of ersatz profundity—part-Occupy tract, part-Hollywood thrill ride. Given that it cost in excess of $115m, no prizes for guessing which impulse prevails.
Its set-up is simple: by 2154, Earth is filthy, depleted and badly overcrowded. Craving somewhere a little less squalid, the planet’s elite have packed up and gone to live in a massive space station—Elysium—where state-of-the-art computers tend their every ailment; they’re effectively immortal. The rest of the population—let’s call them the 99 percent—remain on Earth, in cities that resemble bombed-out favelas, to toil at menial jobs for subsistence wages.
One of these is Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief turned assembly worker, who one day on the assembly line is accidentally exposed to a massive dose of radiation. He’s given some pills, but they’re strictly palliative; he will die in five days. Unless, of course, he can make it to Elysium...
It should be acknowledged that Blomkamp has, not only a strong visual style, but a defined and, after just two films, already identifiable aesthetic. His is a strictly utilitarian future, rusted-out and jerry-built, shaped more by politics than science—or, to be more precise, one in which each of these two elements informs and determines the other; there’s no technological advance, here, without a social covalent. A pity, then, that his political instincts are barely more sophisticated than a PETA leaflet. In this world, children are wise and innocent, bad guys unfailingly cruel and violent, and women... well, they barely register.
Plot points are made early and often. Every story beat is hammered home. And occasionally, just in case we might have missed something, a character will pause to deliver some subtext aloud. ('This will change everything for everyone!’ 'She’ll die if she doesn’t get to Elysium!’ And, my favourite: 'That means I can ask for anything I want!’) We’re barely three minutes in, and already the young Max is solemnly promising his childhood sweetheart that one day he’ll take her 'up there’ to Elysium, and swearing they’ll be together forever... Credit to the casting director for finding a kid who looks the spitting image of Matt Damon, but these are the kind of lines that, for hamfisted foreshadowing, rank with a cop telling you he’s got just two more weeks till retirement.
But then, every signifier here is as obvious, as insubtle, as can be. Not merely a gated community in the sky, Elysium is depicted as a vast country club—the kind of place where one of Bach’s sonatas for unaccompanied ’cello is always playing softly in the background and white folks stand around at lavish garden parties speaking French. Because, you know, these are the kinds of thing rich people like and do. (Has Blomkamp ever heard of Jay-Z, I wonder?)
And while you have to admire the filmmaker’s loyalty to Sharlto Copley, his lead actor from District 9, you also have to wonder why he didn’t bother, this time around, to write him an actual character to play. Instead, his Kruger is a villain scarcely more nuanced than Snidley Whiplash—a psychotic Black Hat who takes pleasuring in menacing sick little children and gives dying men the finger. In this respect, he’s well paired with Alice Braga, who as noble nurse and mommy Frey, is required simply to appear saintly, or anguished, or both.
Damon is his usual strong self; quietly compelling, innately likeable, he’s become one of our finest modern movie stars. As the ruthless controller Delacourt, however, the usually dependable Jodie Foster delivers what can only be described as a career-worst performance—and yes, that includes Nell. She’s also done no favours by the decision (hers? the director’s?) to deliver her dialogue in a clipped, faux-Received Pronunciation accent, an effect all the more destabilising for having apparently been added late in the process—her every line sounds post-synched; not one occupies the same space, sonically, as that of the other actors in the frame.
But then, so many plot points here seem to have been added in ADR—delivered by characters while their backs are turned strategically to camera—that you have to wonder how much of this is a salvage-job, its story-logic patched together during post-production. Even so, some basic details defy common sense: one character has his face blown apart by a grenade—we see, in some detail, the grisly result—but is then resurrected by Elysium’s cure-all technology, supposedly because 'his brain activity is still good.’ Really? Because—and I hate to point this out—it does kind of look like most of his head is missing. Also, he’s been lying very still and not breathing for over nineteen minutes. (The time, we’re told, it takes a shuttle to reach Elysium from Earth.)
Indeed, for a film so concerned with medicine (its message ultimately boils down to a plea for universal healthcare—which it posits, correctly, as a basic right of citizenship), Elysium plays astonishingly fast and loose with human anatomy. A knife wound to the gut almost kills Max on Earth—he’s haemorrhaging blood, and can’t even walk unaided—yet by the next morning he’s not only up and about, but taking punches to the breadbasket like it ain’t no thing. His buddy Spider can barely walk without a cane—that is, until the final showdown, when he’s practically sprinting. Worst of all, there’s Frey’s daughter Matilda, supposedly in the final stages of leukemia, yet looking throughout like something from an Anne Geddes calendar: rosy-cheeked, gimlet-eyed... Who knew terminal cancer could be this adorable?
It gets certain things right: the likelihood, for example, that our future is likely a fascist one, especially in the thriving fields of labour relations and crowd-control. And I couldn’t help but smile at Max’s automated parole officer, a painted cross between a ventriloquist’s dummy and a laughing clown. Yet other aspects seem oddly misconceived: for one thing, there’s a curious lack of screens in this world—no omnipresent television or social media to keep the underclass distracted from their misery, and therefore safely complacent. Which might make sense, were the divide between Earth and Elysium absolute—since why would you bother consoling a terminal case?—but for some reason Elysium, unique among every enclave ever built, lacks even the most basic capacity to repel invasion; instead, it must depend upon a lone agent (Kruger) shooting down prospective intruders from the ground. A decidedly ad hoc solution to what must, you imagine, be a recurring issue.
Eventually all pretence at logic is abandoned. The film’s last act devolves into pure kinetics, an interminable string of chases, shoot-outs and fight scenes. Yet before this, there was one sequence of genuine, undeniable power, as a cluster of shuttles loaded with desperate men, women and children hurtle skyward out of LA, hoping to breach the space station’s perimeter.
Staging it, Blomkamp cannily foregoes the barrage of extreme close-ups and rapid edits that otherwise dominate the action sequences here. Instead he suddenly cuts from a shot of one of the ship’s interiors, packed with frightened refugees, to a long exterior shot—and holds it.
We watch the missiles closing fast upon the ships. We see the distance between them diminish. Then sudden, brief blossoms of flame.
In an Australia increasingly deformed by its own sense of entitlement, where Third World lives are routinely used for political capital—a country whose inhabitants show no apparent interest in ascribing value or even the basic principle of self-determination to those less fortunate than themselves—I found myself newly engaged with the film, longing, suddenly, for these huddled masses to make it to Elysium. To infect that wan, deracinated world with something resembling real life.
But what struck me most, as I watched, was the realisation that Tony Abbott would very likely smile with satisfaction at this sequence. Because I do not doubt for one moment that he would pull that trigger if it meant winning an election—or that most Australians would not choose to look the other way while he did. Elysium is a long way from being a good film. But at this particular time, in this particular place, it has—at least for a few seconds—something urgent and discomfiting to say.