Neill Blomkamp received many a plaudit for his 2009 low-budget sci-fi flick District 9 and deservedly so. It was a well-crafted and thought-provoking film which explored the concept of extra-terrestrial apartheid and did not assume its audience would consist solely of pubescent morons. The South African-born director stuck with the science fiction genre in his follow-up movie, Elysium, starring Matt Damon, though he now had a lot more studio money to play around with. But was it money well spent?
The story is set 150 years hence, by which time the ‘Keep Earth Tidy’ campaign seems to have fallen by the wayside. Los Angeles is an overpopulated, poverty-stricken, polluted cesspit where most people are unemployed and crime is ubiquitous. The place resembles Slough’s Britwell estate, although the weather is a lot nicer. The wealthy élite have decided to relocate to an orbital space station high above the planet, the titular Elysium, where they are waited upon by robotic butlers, throw garden parties and play polo. It’s a sort of cross between the Death Star and Beverly Hills. Understandably, those beastly commoners on terra firma want a slice of the action, especially the advanced health care that the privileged few enjoy. It would appear that any affliction or injury can be cured almost instantly simply by lying in a capsule (perhaps they obtained their medical texts from Hogwarts). However, the Elysian government takes a dim view of the refugee ships coming their way and endeavours to keep the Earthlings out. This task falls to white-suited villainess Jodie Foster who, in an apparent breach of regulations, employs psychotic assassin (erroneously labelled ‘sleeper agent’) Sharlto Copley to fire missiles from Earth into orbit at the incoming spacecraft. Conveniently ignoring the laws of physics, these missiles travel 400 kilometres upwards and blast the arrivistes out of the sky.
Back on the Terran dystopia, the hero of the story, Matt Damon, is a down-on-his-luck factory employee trying to eke a living in an LA shanty-town. His blue-collar buddies allude to the fact that he was once a master criminal, although nothing more is said or made of this in the film. In an industrial accident, he suffers from radiation poisoning and has only five days left to live. The only way to get cured is to hop into one of those magic panacea boxes up in Elysium; to do so, he must team up with zany crime boss Wagner Moura. Incidentally, Moura’s character starts off with a limp but by the end of the film appears to have completely recovered; I assume it was some sort of temporary back injury that cleared up by itself. Damon swings by the local medical centre, where he chats with his childhood friend Alice Braga. She begs him to take her terminally ill daughter with him to Elysium so that she may be cured. He refuses, failing to grasp the whole ‘kill two birds with one stone’ concept. In the end, mother and daughter do indeed accompany him skywards, though this is by chance and not out of any selfless act on his part. Before jetting off, he is hooked up to an exoskeleton and has to obtain some valuable data from an Elysian corporate bad guy. This he accordingly does, but he is then pursued by Copley and two other South African psychopaths armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry.
The remainder of the film descends into little more than chase scenes and gun porn as Damon, who by this time seems to have shaken off all the symptoms of radiation sickness, and his freedom-fighter comrades exchange fire with the Seffricans. Once Copley and Foster are dispatched and the Elysian government toppled, Damon sacrifices himself (I do not remember why he had to do so, nor do I care) so that everyone on Earth can become a citizen of Elysium. Cue Gladiator-style pseudo-ethnic music and slow-motion sequences as Braga’s little girl is popped in a giant microwave and cured of whatever terminal disease she had. Next, we are presented with the closing scene involving three spacecraft flying to Earth to provide the common folk – all fifteen billion of them – with the best quality medical care money can buy. Or, in this case, does not need to buy. Hooray! Obamacare for everyone! The ending credits present themselves before we can start to ponder the logistics of giving every living soul on an overpopulated planet access to expensive medical treatment, not to mention the myriad plot-holes that peppered this movie and which put paid to any suspension of disbelief.
Believe it or not, I enjoyed watching the first third of Elysium. It had the potential to be a sort of thinking man’s science fiction, where important ethical questions are raised and with some heavyweight actors behind it, I could be forgiven for expecting some good character development. Sadly, the interaction between Damon’s protagonist and his childhood friend, far from blossoming into a romance or at least camaraderie, was drowned out by all the explosions and gunshots. Academy Award-winning Jodie Foster looked lost in this film. She put on an accent and attempted the cold-hearted antagonist routine, but she did not breathe life into her role the way she has done so many times before. Moreover, the subplot involving her character’s attempted coup d’état was a complete cul-de-sac and should have been left on the cutting-room floor. I believe Matt Damon’s character was supposed to be some sort of messianic figure, prophesying his trip to the space station as a boy and ultimately sacrificing himself for the good of mankind. However, most of his actions in the film were purely for self-preservation, so he did not come across as particularly heroic.
I get the sense that with Elysium, Blomkamp started off with good intentions but in the end slipped into cruise control, letting the set pieces and special effects do all the talking. The result is a sci-fi movie which has a message but fails to deliver it effectively, so that we are left with a rather muddled and messy affair. On reflection, Elysium differs little from the numerous other mindless action blockbusters that have plagued the silver screen for far, far too long.