Elysium

Matt Damon fights for the future in this sci-fi spectacle from the director of District 9

Also opening this week:

• We’re the Millers ★★★

Elysium

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Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Michael Shanks, Carly Pope, Talisa Soto, Sharlto Copley, Wagner Moura, Faran Tahir, Ona Grauer, Terry Chen, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Jared Keeso, Adrian Holmes, Michael Mando, Johnny Cicco, Claude Duhamel.

A free-wheeling sci-fi adventure with an irreverent, almost flippant streak that recalls Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is a whole lotta fun until a third act that gets a little too serious as it descends into the usual-usual. Even then, this is still one hell of a ride from the director of District 9, who solidifies his status as a sci-fi auteur.

It’s the year 2154, but aside from advances in technology things are pretty much the same on the post-apocalyptic Earth: the wealthy 1% live in their own segregated community and control the rest of the world, where the remaining 99% of the population toils in factories and struggles to survive without access to life-saving health care.

Key difference: the 1% live on Elysium, a huge satellite that circles the globe and represents a perverse suburban ideal, with perfectly trimmed lawns and oversized swimming pools. Each home also happens to contain a fix-all medical pod, which can cure everything from cancer to radiation poisoning (we last saw this technology in Prometheus, where Noomi Rapace’s character performed a self-abortion.)

On Earth, which we see as the wasteland of a Los Angeles ghetto, citizens eager to fight the class war (or just in need of life-saving meds) take flight in makeshift rocket ships that attempt to break through the Elysium defenses. Delacourt (Jodie Foster), head of Elysium’s defense, employs L.A. mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to take out the ships using ground-to-air missiles. 

Elysium, then, becomes a clear-cut Occupy Movement movie: it’s class warfare with the wealthiest 1% against the rest of us. Politics are likely to heavily influence how you feel about the story, but don’t think about it too seriously; while one of the themes is equality and making everyone a citizen of Elysium, the film never explores the real-life implications: this floating paradise exists, and there isn’t enough room on it for everybody

Stuck in the middle of it all is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), an L.A. ex-con and factory worker everyman whose life takes a sudden turn when he’s exposed to a fatal dose of radiation while on the job. Given exactly five days to live – and a handful of pills to keep him going just fine until then – Max doesn’t have much time to get to the one thing that can save his life: those handy-dandy medical pods on Elysium. 

Thankfully, his good friend Spider (Wagner Moura) just happens to run the L.A.-to-Elysium rocket ships. Only problem: he wants Max to run a risky smash-and-grab before he can secure a ticket. The target: wealthy businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner). The goods: the data about Elysium that exists inside his head.

The Max character – quickly dying and outfitted with a mechanical exoskeleton which is drilled into his skin – is not our typical action movie hero: he’s something of a mix between RoboCop and the Jason Statham character in Crank. Still, the setup and stakes are made perfectly clear, resulting in an ideal B-movie protagonist with his eyes on the goal… at least, until love gets in the way. 

But it’s Copely, the South African star of District 9, who steals the show as the brutal mercenary Kruger. Playing against type (well, any type we’ve seen so far – his only other major release was the wretched The A-Team) as the ruthless, war-worn villain, the actor (and his heavy Jo’burg accent) result in some of the film’s most memorable scenes, including one gory moment involving a grenade (but “eets only a flish woond.”)

Elysium’s best quality is its irreverent sense of humor, even in the face of life-threatening situations: the robotic help, from the parole officer who doesn’t like Max’s sarcasm to the hazmat drone who drops him the pills and wishes him a nice five days of life, help to give the film a biting edge reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi blockbusters.  

District 9 was renowned for its visuals: it was a $30 million (low budget, considering the genre) effects-laden spectacle that looked better than blockbusters with five times its budget thanks to Blomkamp’s seamless integration of CGI characters and effects. Elysium is similarly stunning: with less reliance on CGI (though the robotic effects are first-rate) and an increased ($100m) budget, this is a beautifully grimy experience. An excellent soundtrack features original music by Ryan Amon along with dubstep-heavy tracks. 

Elysium isn’t perfect – with plot mechanics dictated by story needs, and gaping holes and unanswered questions that will become apparent with retrospective analysis – but it moves fast enough for these not to matter while the film is unfolding and flies by with a wink and a nudge. The heavy-handed thematics might turn some viewers off, but this might be the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year. 


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