DIR/WRI: Neill Blomkamp • PRO: Simon Kinberg • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith • DES: Philip Ivey • CAST: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
Elysium is South African director Neill Blomkamp’s superb follow-up to the equally excellent District 9. His assured hand takes elements familiar from other sci-fi thrillers and demonstrates how it should be done.
It’s 2154. In the late 21st century, Earth became diseased, overpopulated and polluted. The wealthy constructed an alternative habitat, called Elysium, in a space station. The poor live in sprawling metropolises, such as Los Angeles, fighting illness and poverty. Some of them labour in huge industrial complexes owned by the rich elite, who live out their luxurious lifestyles in the heavens, where its authorised citizens live without worrying about sickness.
Young Max da Costa promises his childhood friend Frey that he will take her to the paradise. A work accident and exposure to radiation makes it necessary for Max to get to Elysium, where he can recover. A rogue Los Angelino, Spider, organises illegal transports to Elysium, thwarted by the cold-hearted power-hungry defence secretary, Delacourt. She conceives a plan to overthrow President Patel, whose politicking obstructs Delacourt in what she sees as the proper protection of Elysium. Max unwittingly foils her attempt, and she dispatches the merciless Agent Kruger to get him.
Clearly, many elements are not new. The best of humanity living on a space station, while the poor and the sick die off on the planet, perhaps fills the gap that WALL·E glossed over. Policing the poor requires armies of RoboCops. There’s also the creation of something like an Iron Man suit for Max, when radiation sickness threatens to debilitate his body as he sets off on his quest. So, in some respects, Blomkamp’s film is derivative and unoriginal.
However, as in District 9, Blomkamp touches on some interesting themes that make his film far more compelling and resonant than other works. The gap between rich and poor has become prevalent in contemporary American cinema. In Time saw poor people struggling to earn enough minutes to keep themselves alive, while the rich lived comfortably on an infinite allowance. In The Purge, the haves employ sophisticated technology to keep out the have-nots. Here, the gap between “the 1%” and the rest manifests spectacularly in the separation of Elysium from the planet, detached from real world problems of pollution and overpopulation, exacerbated by the industries that make their wealth possible and manufacture of the means of repression. Max works in a factory producing the robotic police forces that discipline the labouring class.
Access to healthcare is another issue. The rich never get ill, with medical bays in their houses to cure illness should it occur. Hospitals on Earth provide inadequate care. Max’s childhood friend Frey works as a nurse, and her cute daughter suffers from leukaemia. The hospital cannot offer her the care she requires. Elysium promises the facilities that the poor need. Matt Damon’s physical performance requires his body to endure the pain of makeshift surgery. “I don’t want to die” is his refrain.
Glimpses of the elite’s idyllic lifestyles appear as a cello plays Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ on the soundtrack. The inhabitants speak French, and Jodie Foster, as Delacourt, contributes a chilling performance as their defender, her compulsion to protect them coming from a resolute but fearsome maternal instinct. Garbed in grey formal suits, with short blond hair, Delacourt resembles, not a little, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF. Sharlto Copley, who played the lead in District 9, gets the best lines, playing Agent Kruger.
Max da Costa grew up in a Latino community. A nun encourages him to pursue his destiny, giving him a token to remind him of where he comes from and how beautiful Earth must look from Elysium. The struggles of poor Latinos attempting to emigrate to a better place reflects contemporary concerns with immigration, the Land of Opportunity and the American Dream.
Despite such serious thematic elements, Blomkamp knows his audience. The film plays as an engaging and exciting thriller. Pacing is perfect, transitioning swiftly from the necessary exposition to deftly handled extended action sequences, although sometimes frenetic cutting and handheld shots make it a bit difficult to follow the action. We can forgive him for some narrative gaps because he maintains the excitement and tension. Blomkamp returns with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, editor Julian Clarke, designer Philip Ivey, all of whom match the high standards set by District 9. That film created high expectations that Blomkamp, with Elysium, has surely met.