Few things help us examine the present like looking into the future. Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium drapes a thin veneer of futuristic automatons and spaceships over its blatant meditation on the current state of wealth disparity. And while Blomkamp’s overall treatise on income inequality amounts to little more than “it sucks,” it’s still a rousing film that engages the viewer through its excellent production design and propulsive narrative.
In the year 2154, Earth has been abandoned by the wealthy elites who choose to live in the large orbiting satellite known as Elysium. Up above, the one percenters enjoy a luxurious life as they are attended to by various droids and the best futuristic medical care, ensuring there is no disease on Elysium. Meanwhile, Earth has become a neglected ghetto, an unending favela full of rubble and refuse that manufactures the machinery on which Elysium (and all of society) runs. Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict who has given up his life of crime for a job helping to construct security droids in a factory. Once Max suffers a possibly fatal injury, he realizes the only way to cure what ails him lies on Elysium. In order to book passage with a black market shuttle, Max has to perform a heist of sorts for his former criminal associate (the engaging Wagner Moura) on a visiting citizen of Elysium (a near perfect William Fichtner). Unfortunately, this man also figures into the plans of the head of Elysium’s security (Jodie Foster) who dispatches a psychotic mercenary (Copley) to retrieve what she needs. Oh, and Max needs to wear a superpowered exoskeleton because punching!
This is not a film of nuance or subtlety. Elysium is obvious in every regard and has no interest in discussing the finer elements of wealth disparity or even characterization. But that doesn’t mean that Blomkamp doesn’t handle it all tactfully while providing some intriguing world building and memorable set pieces. Science fiction has a long tradition of the unsubtle commentary. In fact, many works that barely obscure their message have aged fairly well and are now beloved by millions: Metropolis, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Frank Herbert’s Dune, the works of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. Few of these works merely suggest their morality. Hell, Rod Serling would come out on a weekly basis to summarize what you should’ve learned before the closing credits. But they resonate to this day because they were simple truths told in a fantastic manner. Elysium never hits those highs but it does continue this tradition of sci-fi films about something told in a mostly interesting fashion.
Only “mostly interesting” because there are some areas where Elysium is fairly rote and uninspiring. The constant flashing back to Max’s youth as a street urchin is superfluous, adding nothing after the third or seventh time. Life in Elysium is unfortunately mostly unexplored, except it involves garden parties and infinity pools. Alice Braga’s role as Max’s childhood sweetheart doesn’t consist of much more than being a conscience wrapped in flesh with plaintive expressions.
Most of the other roles are underwritten, as well, but the characters present a few more possibilities for the actors. Damon anchors the story’s sense of world-weariness with an authentic portrayal of a working man just trying to get by with the least amount of hassle possible, only to be rewarded with bad news at every turn. Foster performs with an odd pan-European accent, which is either brilliant or abhorrent — I still can’t decide. Copley sinks his teeth into mercenary Kruger, relishing in the campy menace and unhinged barbarism of the cybernetic villain.
Still, Blomkamp retains his eye for intricate production design, and stages excellent action. Everything on Earth feels lived-in and forgotten, while Elysium appears painstakingly antiseptic, adhering to an unknown neighborhood-association code. Famed futurist Syd Mead contributed to some designs in the production, and the vehicles, drones, droids, and exoskeletons are all striking visuals. I fully expect to see them in heavy rotation in the comic-convention cosplay circuit.
Elysium rarely takes time to pause, the narrative unstoppably moving forward as if it, too, were rigged with a robot suit. It delivers strong action; well-staged, memorable scenes with entertaining characters; and world-building that leaves the audience intrigued while addressing something of substance. It doesn’t do it in an inventive fashion, but it’s effective nonetheless. And while looking to the future helps us define our present, it is also carrying on a great tradition from the past — one that more genre films would benefit from following.