2154. The wealthy have abandoned an exhausted Earth to live on Elysium, a satellite habitat. Max (Damon), an ex-crook, sustains a fatal radiation dose in an industrial accident and has five days to live... unless he can get to Elysium and use advanced medical machines to cure himself.
For his follow-up to District 9, writer-director Neill Blomkamp has again gone for satirical science-fiction. Here, he delivers the classic Aldous Huxley-George Orwell-Ray Bradbury rebel-against-a-monolithic-dystopia scenario, in the muscular, mechanoid-fetish ’80s/’90s James Cameron-Paul Verhoeven action-movie manner.
It’s beside the point that the society shown here isn’t a credible extrapolation of its imagined tech (if the medical machine existed, it would be more likely to create a world like that of In Time, where renewed health is used to keep the labouring poor at work supporting the rich folk). This future is a bitter cartoon of the way things are right now: most of the world lives in squalour — either unemployed or doing dirty, dangerous, ill-paid jobs — while the 2001-look silver wheel Elysium hangs tantalisingly visible in the sky.
It takes guts for a contemporary, Hollywood-backed film to be unashamedly in favour of illegal immigration and socialised medicine — indeed, the plot boils down to sick third-world people desperate to crash into a luxurious superpower (ie: America) in order to take advantage of medical facilities. Watch the Obama hatred ignite on the IMDb comments threads for Elysium to get a sense of Blomkamp’s ambitions in an era when most science-fiction blockbusters can too easily be mistaken for toy commercials or military recruitment films. There’s little to the easy, privileged, lounging-on-the-lawn elite life of Elysium, though Blomkamp gives thought to grubby-handed doers like an icy Jodie Foster and a weaselly William Fichtner, who have to keep the money flowing in and the unwashed firmly out. However, the satirical barbs (which include RoboCop-style polite but murderous law droids) are packed between bursts of bleeding-edge movie action and dollops of soap opera about sick kids and saintly nurses. Alice Braga, the go-to angel of worldwide collapses, repeats the act she did in Blindness and I Am Legend, representing the humane values the compromised hero has to preserve. Sharlto Copley (who seems about two feet taller here than in his other films) is more entertaining as the Worst Of Both Worlds, an Elysium agent who lives on Earth because the world-spanning, rubble-strewn refugee camp gives him more opportunities to kill and ravage.
Using hand-held, grubby, jittery camera style and extremely polished CGI, Blomkamp stages extraordinary, visceral moments: a robot blown apart and disassembled in slo-mo by a percussion grenade, a character having his face grown back after it’s been blasted off. As in District 9, Blomkamp and company really think through the design of this world — the Amstrad-level computer-screen displays, the contrast between sleek Elysium shuttles and grungy people-smuggling ships. It’s gritty and uncompromising in politics, but doesn’t stretch too far in characterisation — Matt Damon is good as a shaven-haired cyborg in an armoured exoskeleton with a flash-drive in his head leaking access codes into his brain, but Max is still a simplistic character. There should be a moment of disappointment when he gets to the place he’s dreamed of all his life and finds it’s just a satellite version of Beverly Hills, but by then we’re too busy in crash-landing shoot-out mode for it to register.
Not perfect, but a much more satisfying Earth-in-ruins film than Oblivion or After Earth. It is a little more conventional than District 9 (what isnt?), but confirms Blomkamp as one of the potential science-fiction greats of this decade.