Film Review: Elysium

The writer-director of 'District 9' returns with another socially conscious sci-fi allegory that packs a wallop of a message—minus any heavy-handed ideology.

Will storytellers ever run out of bleakly dystopian future-visions that make us feel better about our discouraging present day, by showing us just how much worse things will be after we’re gone? Probably not anytime soon. But as long as those cautionary tales are as vibrant, dynamic and relevant to the way we live now as Elysium is, there will be audiences flocking to them—and going home sated. Because yes, along with a very topical, deeply resonant theme and premise, Elysium has a hurtling momentum, with enough boom-crash-splatter explosiveness to wow even the most hardened action junkie.

The time is 2154. The planet is Earth, or what’s left of it: an overpopulated, over-befouled, crumbling, smoldering hull of its former self. Such depictions of our near-future are increasingly the norm in forward-looking science fiction (not to mention scientific journals). But what’s different about Elysium’s Earth is how real it all looks. Descending from sweeping aerial overviews of a bombed-out, decrepit L.A. (here portrayed by what are hopefully the worst slums of Mexico City, hopefully augmented by visual effects), director Neill Blomkamp’s camera navigates filthy streets that teem with downtrodden humanity, all tripping over one another, immersed in a dusty, brownish haze. You can almost feel the grit and smell the squalor. Rarely on film has urban decay seemed so, well, decaying.

But this is home to the film’s hero, Matt Damon’s Max, a former orphan and reformed car thief, who now toils on a grimy assembly line, building and/or rebuilding the robots that already seem to be doing most of the blue-collar-type jobs in this society. Indeed, Max is one of the few people in his hood who even has a job.

That changes when there’s an accident at the plant, and Max is bathed with a massive dose of radiation. Told by an EMT robot that he has mere days to live, Max suddenly has a whole new reason to realize his lifelong dream of getting from Earth to Elysium—that big, beautiful wagon wheel of a space station in the sky, where all the Earth’s remaining rich and privileged (now apparently reduced to far less than 1% of the population) enjoy a carefree life of palatial homes in green suburban enclaves, copious cocktails alongside outsized swimming pools, absolute zero crime, and medical technology that can cure whatever ails a human being. Terminal cancer? No such thing. Face blown off by a grenade? Not a problem. Given such miracle cures, is it any wonder that Max is willing to do whatever it takes to transport himself to Elysium?

As it turns out, doing anything it takes involves making deals with a few devils—as well as with Spider (Wagner Moura), the resistance leader who organizes underground-railroad type shuttle trips to Elysium for the huddled masses. Spider needs Max to be his go-to guy in a grand plan to open up paradise—or at least free miracle medical attention—to his most needy people. This involves downloading a lot of key information files directly into Max’s brain—which makes Max the number-one human target, for free-agent mercenaries and government higher-ups alike. Nothing like the rebel-theft of some invaluable top-secret information to put everybody into full panic mode.

The resulting mayhem escalates so fast and furiously that it’s sometimes a challenge just to keep up with who does what to whom, and why. And for a while, the rhythm of Elysium feels like that of a lot of other recent souped-up sci-fi action thrillers. Elysium will someday make a nice DVD double-rental with the underrated Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion. But the stylistic sense of déjà vu is actually at its most pronounced during the final mano-a-mano between Max and super-assassin Kruger (Sharlto Copley), which is not-so-vaguely reminiscent of that back-breaking Batman-vs.-Bane underground smackdown in last summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. At this point, his radiation-weakened body bolstered by a metallic exoskeleton hardwired to his nervous system, Max is like a Robocop on steroids. With Kruger similarly accessorized, we get a suitably climactic duel of customized combatants. That the outcome depends on the mechanics of their body armor seems appropriate for a world of dehumanized humans. And even as you’re still asking yourself where you’ve seen it before, the climactic action has stampeded on to something more genuinely affecting.

But then, that’s the pace at which this whole movie plays out, as it flashes back from the present to Max’s orphan childhood, while also cutting between events on Elysium (where Jodie Foster’s icy secretary of defense is blasting refugee shuttle craft out of the sky, even as she plots a palace coup), and a crucial subplot involving Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga)—who is on her own desperate mission to make it to Elysium, with a young daughter (Emma Tremblay) doomed by late-stage leukemia. Blomkamp breathtakingly juggles all these storylines, cutting between them seemingly at random—until, all of a sudden, you see how these character’s paths are starting to converge. Or rather, collide. By the time they do, Elysium’s outcome seems inevitable.

If Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9, wore its apartheid allegories on its sleeve, Elysium is equally obvious about our real world’s current socioeconomic imbalance—with a fairly explicit emphasis on the concepts of open borders and universal healthcare. But as with District 9, Blomkamp never stoops to strike a political stance, much less put a speechifying monologue in anyone’s mouth. As if the breakneck narrative pace would have allowed room for any of that.

No, the trials and tribulations of Elysium’s have-nots unfold on a purely emotional, at times visceral, level. There is a lyrically bittersweet air of melancholy to many of its scenes, especially the flashbacks depicting Max as a young boy, leafing through a picture book of extinct giraffes and elephants, and listening as an orphanage nun explains that Elysium is not a dream that can come true for everyone, and nevertheless vowing to fellow orphan Frey that he will someday get her to that forbidden paradise. These moments take the film above and beyond the usual genre requirements. They speak directly to basic human needs and longings; they deal in universal matters of the heart and soul. These flashbacks are what stay with you, long after the bone-shaking shock and awe of this film’s epic conflict have faded away.