Elysium mixes exciting action sequences and thoughtful political commentary. In other words, this sci-fi thriller offers whats been missing throughout a summer of straightforward blockbusters that wouldnt know subtext if it yanked on their capes.
Part allegory, part cautionary tale, Elysium presents a pollution-ruined future Earth inhabited by have-nots and orbited by the sleek space station Elysium, where the wealthy live and where technology assures perfect health.
Though vegetation is scarce on mid-22nd century Earth, Elysium residents enjoy manicured lawns, swimming pools and in-home medical equipment that instantly identifies and cures ailments, from broken bones to cancer.
South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamps impressive follow-up to his similarly sci-fi and political Oscar-nominated 2009 film District 9 takes on universal health care, immigration, and 1 percenters seemingly infinite power. It also succeeds as a man-on-a-mission action film whose decimated version of Earth is realistic enough to inspire shivers.
Helping establish that realism is Matt Damon, steady as ever as Max, a robot-factory worker on Earth who needs to get to Elysium, and its medical pods, after his exposure to radiation at work. Such equipment does not exist in Earths homes. But graffiti and crumbling paint do.
Damon is all muscled up and tattooed here, sporting a shaved head. Yet he maintains the reassuring everyman quality we associate with him. Max can summon strength when fighting those who get between him and Elysium (a bio-mechanical exoskeleton assists in that), but the radiation has weakened him. Damons displays of vulnerability enhance the urgent humanity within this tale of a system that shuts out the underprivileged from basic services.
Blomkamp, whose aliens-on-Earth story doubled as an apartheid allegory in District 9, again addresses government-mandated ethnic and class divides.
On Earth, advanced technology mostly benefits machines serving as proxies for Elysium officials, who control Earth but fear its air. Determined to retain his humanity amid the filth and machines, Max tries to joke with a robo-cop that shakes him down on the way to work. The robo-cop breaks Maxs hand.
Max lives in 2154 Los Angeles, where crime is rampant and the landscape is littered with debris (Blomkamp shot some scenes in a Mexico City dump).
He speaks Spanish the dominant language in 22nd century L.A. as well as English. So do those desperate souls, mostly Latino, who gamble their life savings on rogue shuttles that Spider (Wagner Moura), a hacker, coyote and longtime Max acquaintance, sends to Elysium.
Ensuring most illegal shuttles never reach the space station is Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, slightly French-accented and perfectly frosty in a smallish role), a top Elysium offficial. Her sleeper agent (Sharlto Copley, from District 9) unleashes missiles on the shuttles, from Earth.
But some illegal immigrants do make it, and knowing theres a shot at getting to Elysiums magical medical pods keeps them coming.
The long odds mirror, to a degree, those of people who seek a better life by trying to enter the United States illegally from Mexico. Blomkamp depicts the characters seeking passage in Elysium so sympathetically that anyone with a modicum of humanity will identify. They might not support illegal immigrants receiving benefits from the U.S. government. But they will identify.
Elysium also speaks to our deep-seated fear that the world is rigged in favor of the wealthy. When ecological disaster strikes in the film, the poor bear the brunt and the rich find loopholes. In Elysium, that loophole is a circular space station that resembles a Mercedes logo.
Blomkamp likely used loads of computer-generated effects to create pristine Elysium, (scenes set there were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia) and grubby Earth. But the effects are virtually undetectable. Most Earth scenes occur in daylight, with robots and hovering spacecraft merging seamlessly with the landscape.
The violence in Elysium is stark and cruel, befitting a film about a divided society. Damon, star of the Bourne films, is a scrapper from way back. Max duels convincingly with guns and fists. His main foe is Kruger, the sleeper agent who can throw up a protective shield to ward off blows and bullets.
Copley gives Kruger a maniacal zeal that plays a bit too comically for this weighty film. Moura goes over the top as well, though Spider, the coyote, eventually becomes a well-rounded character.
Diego Luna, as Maxs best friend, and Alice Braga, as his childhood crush, offset Mouras and Copleys fervor with soulfulness. But their characters are not sufficiently developed for us to root for them as much as Max does.
Elysium sometimes seems overedited and overscored, with choppy scenes and musical cues that put too fine a point on the action or the stakes. These moments feel so unlike District 9 that you wonder if a producer or the studio tinkered with this film after Blomkamp completed it.
That probably did not happen. But Elysium inspires one to challenge The Man.
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @carlameyersb.
Call The Bees Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB