Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is about as subtle as a kick to the jaw, yet it packs the action and science fiction chops to be somewhat entertaining. The 2013 film is overt in its moral compass, which is sustaining to a point, but it also leaves itself wide open to derisive deconstruction.
Blomkamp isn’t telling a tale of the future. Despite setting things in the year 2154 in a world divided into two classes, Elysium is very contemporary in its study of social and political issues. It appreciates the gulf between elites and other economic classes of people and uses modern terms to describe the situation.
Matt Damon is Max, a former thief who is now a parolee in the ruins of Los Angeles. He works in a factory making weapons for Elysium, the space station above Earth that houses the wealthy. The station is nirvana, where citizens live with healthcare and luxury. Max slogs below with the underprivileged in the slums and doesn’t give it a lot of thought until a work accident.
Given five days to live due to radiation, he insists on getting to Elysium to use one of their Med-Bays. This requires him to team up with members of his former crew, which in turn requires him to download data to his head. Said data turns out to be very important to the Secretary of Defence (Jodie Foster), who makes it her mission to track down Max.
There are other layers to the plot, including the presence of the obligatory sick little girl (Emma Tremblay) whose mother (Alice Braga) knows Max. This gives Max his requisite moral quandary and pushes Elysium to its final Messianic act. In this pile-up of expediencies, the film and its characters don’t exactly earn the moral high ground they seek.
In other words, it feels cinematically cheap. Even though the overt thrust is glitzed up with Max going toe-to-toe with a squad of wishy-washy mercenaries and experimenting with cool guns, it’s hard to escape the plainness of its moral core.
Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay, certainly has a passion for issues of class and poverty. He understands that the health care situation is a moral concern and he plays the current state of affairs out to a rational end, with healing held very far away from those who can’t afford it.
He continues in this regard, calling the lower class people down on Earth “undocumented” and leaving them outside the range of the mega-computers that run Elysium. This propensity is useful in terms of demonstrating just how disturbingly depraved current conditions are, but it doesn’t exactly make for a good movie.
In other words, the heart of Elysium isn’t going to win many new converts because it’s too easy to use the same inane, wicked arguments against what should be a basic human right. That’s not to say that the sole aim of Blomkamp’s universe is to sell the argument for health care or the needed dissolution of classism, of course.
Other details also work, especially at Max’s job. There he is just part of the machinery, a component part that better not stain the fabric when he has five days left to live. This nod to working conditions isn’t as overt as the rest of the material, but it’s not exactly earthshattering either.
Where that leaves Elysium is as an instance of adequate science fiction. It isn’t a clever film and the performances are kind of whacky, especially in the case of Foster. But its effects are often tremendous, especially in the grubbier boundaries of Los Angeles. The machines are also interesting modules in this convincing future, even if the rest of the world fails to inspire.