The first time audiences got a glimpse of what director Neill Blomkamp could do was in 2009’s modestly budgeted District 9. Its moral was hardly subtle, but its storytelling was effective, focused on the parallel between a population of alien refugees in South African townships and the abuses of apartheid. The film featured imaginatively crafted beasties and shooting aplenty, as well as an impressive performance by Sharlto Copley as a human accidentally and traumatically transformed into an alien.
Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium, is another allegory, made for buckets more money and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The result is a sharper, more finely honed story with less leaden symbolism, still stamped with the filmmaker’s less admirable quirks. It is again a tale of what happens to the human body when you modify it genetically and physically, and sometimes blast it apart with explosives or a shoulder-fired rail gun.
The year is 2154 and everybody still living on earth is having a miserable time. The Los Angeles where paroled car thief Max (Damon) ekes out a living as a robot-making factory worker looks like a congested favela. Instead of the dark alleyways and cloud-piercing skyscrapers of many dystopic noirs, this city is familiar to anybody who’s spent time in chaotic megacities like Lagos, Cairo or Mexico City, where Blomkamp shot much of his film. The onetime infrastructure is decimated, with overwhelmed social services, no civic government to speak of, randomly authoritarian robot-police, and a relentlessly hand-to-mouth existence. It’s ripe for revolt.
This possibility is of great concern for the elites who abandoned earth decades earlier for the orbiting space station Elysium. Or, at least it concerns those charged with maintaining the separation between realms. The cartoonish Elysium floats over earth, all pristine suburban McMansions, green swathes of lush parkland, medical pods that can instantly cure any illness, and citizens bearing tattoos to mark their exclusive status and wearing white and pastel outfits that wouldn’t last two minutes on the trash-choked and smog-dusted earth. When the greedy boss John Carlyle (William Fichtner), he winces at the harsh noises and smells, instructing workers to remove an injured fellow from his sight (“Get rid of him”) rather than spend money or energy on medical treatment.
The script closes in quickly on the inevitable clash of classes. Desperate earth residents pile into rattletrap shuttles and make a mad dash into outer orbit towards Elysium, plainly alluding to today’s immigration politics, Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean or Latin Americans dying in deserts. In Elysium, though, the refugees are killed purposefully by military forces whose edict is to protect the “homeland” that is not a land at all.
Just so, the station operates as a sovereign nation, with its own political officials. Their secretary of defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster, with a stilted accent of unclear provenance), has an answer for stopping the refugees. She keeps Kruger (Copley), a merc of uncertain sanity, located on earth. When the shuttles take off on their run, he lines them up in the sights of a surface-to-space missile launcher and blows them to pieces. It seems an imperfect line of defense at best, and one of several creaky plot mechanisms that undermine a generally engaging story.
When her aggressive tactics trouble a vaguely ethical president, Delacort resists his reprimand by keeping Kruger on the payroll for some surreptitious coup d’état work. At the same time, the once reform-minded Max is working with Spider (Wagner Moura), a sleazy outer-orbit coyote, to get up to Elysium for medical care. Not only did Max receive a lethal dose of radiation in a factory accident, but his childhood love Frey (Alice Braga) has a daughter with leukemia whom he wants to save. All that’s standing between them and new leases on life are thousands of miles of space and Kruger and his team of thugs.
Blomkamp’s sympathy for the earthbound rabble is palpable. He barely spends enough time on Elysium to note the plot-convenient medical pods and snooty garden parties (Foster shows off her French while sipping champagne and checking her every busy wrist-monitor), before getting back to the resilient street fighters and overworked doctors below. Max is genuinely likeable, if obviously fated, self-sacrificing and clever, as well as an action hero. But this bit of light is extinguished fairly quick by circumstances, when Max must be fitted with a “third-generation exo-suit” skeletal framework that’s sutured into his flesh and drilled into his bones, allowing him to plug straight into a database and remain upright longer than he might have.
Once Max makes it to Elysium, it’s fight time, and here the film provides plenty of opportunity for he and Kruger to go at it. Little more than an itinerant psychopath, Kruger seems the sort of soldier who would kill civilians in a war zone for target practice. Stalking around under a cape and later inside his own souped-up exo-suit, he wields a samurai sword and a handheld force-field device with deadly ability; but for a lack of face paint, he could be Darth Maul with a reedy Afrikaans accent.
The movie’s reliance on such worn-out pulp villainy consistently undercuts its narrative and more importantly, its politics. Instead of spending just a little more time developing Max and Frey’s relationship or building some kind of background for the people on Elysium, Blomkamp keeps retreating to the Tetsuo-like spectacle of humans breaking each other down, by mutilation or outright head-exploding, only to be reconstituted so they can go at it again. Elysium is tough-minded science fiction rooted in sociopolitical realities that set it apart from almost every other CGI-ed blockbuster. But its retreat into action-flick conventions keeps it from being truly revolutionary.