It is the twenty-second century. The more affluent members of society have relocated to a space station named Elysium, a utopia in which miraculous medical technology can keep a person in health for more than a century. Meanwhile, Earth is left to people too poor to make use of these technological advantages, instead toiling away under the watchful eyes of various robot drones. People of Earth who try to reach Elysium illegally risk being shot down and killed at the behest of Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the space station’s secretary of defence.
The main character in this story is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a factory worker who receives a fatal dose of radiation in an accident. With five days to live, his only hope is to somehow reach Elysium for a cure. Max turns to a criminal cell responsible for smuggling people to the space station; he is fitted with an exoskeleton to keep him strong during his illness, but in return he must obtain sensitive information from an Elysian CEO. This information makes him the target of Delacourt and her brutal mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley); now, his mission is not merely to save his own life, but to help to overthrow the elitist society of Elysium.
Perhaps two paragraphs are more than what is necessary to summarise the plot of Elysium, the new film from writer-director Neill Blomkamp. The film takes a promising subject for a science fiction story – a technological panacea and its impact on society – but quickly turns it into a backdrop for noisy, bloody action sequences. Once the pieces are in place by the end of the first act, the space station Elysium and its medical marvels are little more than MacGuffins to keep Max and Kruger going at each other.
To be fair, Elysium definitely tries to make a social comment. There is a subtext relating to immigration debates: the film’s futuristic Los Angeles appears to be populated largely by Hispanics, while the space station – its Asian president aside – is primarily white, making it easy to read the two worlds as representing Latin America and the United States respectively. Presumably the set-up is meant as a plea for tolerance and compassion for people from poorer countries, although any film that portrays a dystopian future America as being full of Hispanics will obviously raise eyebrows.
Mixed messages aside, the problem here is that the film is rehashing a stale old concept. Back in 1927 Fritz Lang’s Metropolis gave us a vision of a future in which the wealthy inhabit the top of a beautiful city while the workers are crowded into subterranean slums.
Metropolis was essentially a fairy tale, ending with its workers and thinkers reconciled in a conclusion which Lang himself found overly simplistic. In an echo of its ancestor, Elysium also seems unable to reach a plausible conclusion and likewise resorts to solving its problems in fairy tale terms.
Although the cast lends a good deal of credibility, the characters are as broadly-defined as their world. Shortly after Max gets poisoned by the radiation, he is visited in bed by the secondary villain Carlyle (William Fichtner). Caryle turns out to be less concerned about the fatal accident than the fact that he’ll have to pay for new bedding if Max’s skin falls off: a moment worthy of Mr. Burns.
This kind of cartoonish characterisation has its place, but is best off delivered with a wink and a nudge. The sinister music that plays in the background of the scene, along with sequences featuring Jodie Foster’s similarly moustache-twirling villain, implies that we are meant to take the material seriously.
But perhaps these criticisms are missing the point. Elysium is a film for 15-year-old thrill seekers who expect the depiction of a futuristic society to be nothing more than halfway intriguing window dressing for all-out action, and the characters little more than participants in a game of cowboys and Indians.
Viewed in this light, Elysium works. It provides a straight-ahead action narrative which is stripped down to its essentials; while none of it stands up to the closest inspection, the pace never lags long enough to allow for close inspection in the first place.
It is also a film that lacks cynicism. There is a subplot between Max and the female lead Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse whose daughter is dying of leukaemia and must also be saved at Elysium; this could have come across as a mawkish addition to the plot included only because Hollywood formula demands a love interest, but instead it offers a genuine breath of fresh air from all the macho posturing and brutal violence. Elysium carries the overall sense that Blomkamp is telling a story on his own terms according to his own wishes, as opposed to having one dictated to him by executives in accordance to public mores.
The film never quite creates the truly iconic imagery that marks most of the classic science fiction and fantasy films, but it makes a strong effort. Matt Damon is a visually striking lead, his babyfaced good looks standing in sharp contrast with his sweaty, shaven-headed character – especially when the exoskeleton is grafted to his body. The robots that police Earth are convincingly tatty and beaten, run-down relics of a future which – in this film – is now the past.
In the end, Elysium does not live up to its promise: it touches upon intriguing ideas, but does not know what to do with them. It manages to save itself by becoming an energetic and well-paced action movie, but it could have been more.