Ambitious mix of action sequences and social justice ideas fuel Neill Blomkamp’s dynamic ‘Elysium’

August 19, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 19, 2013

Elysium is an action-packed science-fiction film with a heart for social justice.

Sadly, this fun, dynamic film has no real clue how to go about achieving social justice in the real, non-cinematic world. Still, the fast-moving storyline and appealing characters go a long way toward making up for that rather significant flaw.

The second feature to be written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, following District 9Elysium shares a number of things with its 2009 predecessor. Both take place in dusty, dystopian, urban futures. In both movies, machines hovering above Earth contain wonders that most humans are eager to obtain — wonders that also threaten to exacerbate existing inequality.

Elysium is set in and above Los Angeles in the year 2154. The film is named after a luxurious orbiting space station to which our overpopulated and polluted planet’s aristocrats moved themselves some years previously. The film’s hero is one Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con who has been trying to walk the straight and narrow.

Da Costa works in an immense factory owned by Armadyne Corp., an arms maker controlled by the Elysium-based John Carlyle. After Da Costa loses his job thanks to an industrial accident, he turns to a crime lord named Spider for help. Before too long, Da Costa is shooting down Carlyle’s personal transport in an attempt to download the secrets in his head. 

But Carlyle’s brain contains more than just bank account numbers and passwords. Elysium’s defense minister, the steely Delacourt (Jodie Foster), has enlisted Armadyne’s CEO to help her with a secretive coup d’état. In order to keep Carlyle’s memories away from Earth criminals, the minister dispatches a rogue agent named Kruger to track down Da Costa before he can ruin her scheme.

Converging interests — Da Costa’s need to get treatment for a knife wound, Kruger’s desire to apprehend Da Costa — embroil a nurse and her young daughter in the plot. The nurse, Frey, happens to be Da Costa’s lifelong love; they met as newcomers to a Catholic orphanage. The daughter, Matilda, happens to be very sick. Rather conveniently for plot purposes, Kruger and Da Costa arrange for the whole motley crew to enter Earth orbit, where Elysium’s miraculous “med bays” just might get the chance to serve as deus ex machina. That said, the path to salvation is filled with peril.

Both District 9 and Elysium are filled with action set pieces and served with a side of body horror. (In the earlier film, which Blomkamp co-wrote with Terri Tatchell, the hero was exposed to a chemical that slowly converted him into an alien. Here, in a short but gruesome sequence, Da Costa is subjected to illicit body-enhancement surgery; it’s bound to be remembered alongside Minority Report’s eyeball-replacement episode in the cinematic annals of bootleg surgery.) The new picture seemed to me to have both more action and more intense imagery; there are at least two shots that show one character with a massive head injury.

To Blomkamp’s credit, he doesn’t just want us enjoy the thrills he puts on the screen — he wants us to think about social inequality and other serious issues. Sadly, the third acts of his films are dominated by action and contain little to stimulate the intellect. Elysium also suffers from an ending that, even more than District 9’s, is far too pat. Blomkamp implies that a few lines of computer code and a willingness to be generous can cure the world’s ills (both figuratively and literally).

That said, the conflict between the haves and have-nots postulated in Elysium is clearly and provocatively drawn, its story and action sequences are crisp, and virtually every frame of the movie is just gorgeous.

Blomkamp also gets fine performances from his cast — not only Damon and Foster but Alice Braga (Isabelle in Predators) as Frey and Sharlto Copley (the milquetoast antihero of District 9, barely recognizable here) as the fierce, brutal Kruger.

William Fichtner, Wagner Moura and Diego Luna play supporting parts as, respectively, Carlyle, Spider and Julio, Da Costa’s friend. Faran Tahir, who had a small but powerful cameo as Captain Robau in 2009’s Star Trek, has a similarly small but commanding role in Elysium as President Patel.

In short, while this movie is certainly not perfect, it’s got enough going for it that it’s easy to forgive its shortcomings. For my money, this is the best picture of the summer. Viewers who have any interest in science fiction or action films should make a point of seeing Elysium.

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