I went into the theater primed to fall in love with the dystopian sci-fi thriller Elysium. I mean, what’s not to like, with Matt Damon in the title role as Max and wunderkind Neill Blomkamp as the creative visionary behind the film, serving as both writer and director. Set in the future, the film addresses a post-collapse world where the have’s have a whole lot more than the have not’s can even dream of, as they suffer through the squalor of their daily Earth-bound existence.
But I left feeling disappointed that Blomkamp never quite realized just how heavy-handed his sort of “Occupy Elysium” film would end up being. It’s not just that it’s clearly a parable of the 1% versus the other 99% of us, but that the film commits one of the deadly sins of cinema: Making everything too black and white, too overt, too obvious.
It suffers from something I’ve written about before in my reviews, actually, something I call the noble savage problem. It’s a holdover from the early 1900s and is the idea that society is bad, progress is bad, and everyone from an earlier era, especially those who were unfettered with the constraints of our culture, were noble and worthy of admiration. You know, it’s the same theme that children are now taught regarding the American Indians.
In the film, it’s an easy calculation: If you’re rich and can afford to live in Elysium, you’re a bad person, immoral and just worried about your own privileges and wealth. If you’re poor and are stuck in the vast wasteland that is the Earth, you’re downtrodden, but you’re ultimately noble and are simply trying to attain what’s fairly yours, or trying to heal your sick children or feed yourself. In space? Bad. On Earth? Good.
The film revolves around former car thief Max (Damon) who has a job in a cyborg construction plant that’s eerily reminiscent of the robot factory in the recent Total Recall remake. It’s a horrible place, the boss is cruel, the work is awful and dangerous, the factory is filthy, and when Max is accidentally irradiated through a mishap, the company ends to his illness just long enough to get him to sign a disclaimer, then unceremoniously dumps him back on the streets, with just enough medicine to ease his pain as he struggles through the last few days of his life.
That, of course, is a classic High Noon sort of plot device, brilliantly tapped in the noir masterpiece D.O.A., but I’ll forgive Blomkamp for that because it forces Max to try and figure out a way up to Elysium where they have fabled medical tech that can cure anyone of any illness in just a few seconds of genetic reconstruction. To propel the story forward, his friend Frey (Alice Braga) begs for his help: her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) desperately needs Elysium medical tech to cure her debilitating illness too.
Meanwhile, up on Elysium, the dastardly Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is making a deal with the devil — Carlyle (William Fichtner) — to overthrown Elysium’s president. Carlyle knows how to hack the Elysium computer system to change all the security codes and enable the coup, information he downloads into his wetware device (a computer buried in his skull). When he’s killed, Max, who by this point has been enhanced through the brutal addition of an exoskeleton by mobster Spider (Wagner Moura), copies all the data into his own wetware device, not knowing what it even is. That’s a problem, so it’s no surprise when Delacourt tasks pitiless mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to find and eliminate Max.
Good guys, bad guys, and a story that zips along at a good pace. Add to it amazing visuals and stunning special effects, a space station that’s so beautiful and fragile that I wouldn’t mind living there myself, and you should have the ingredients for a top-notch sci-fi thriller.
If it just wasn’t so crassly political and overt in its message. I didn’t sign up to see a propaganda film from the Occupy Elysium contingent and the very same story told where some of the Elysium residents were reticent and had second thoughts about their world while others on Earth really were scum and bad people, not misunderstood downtrodden just trying to get ahead, and it might have been a top release for the 2013 summer film season.
As it stands, Blomkamp’s previous film District 9 was better, with the aliens a mix of noble and vicious along with the humans also being a mix of good and bad people. Same essential story of the have’s and the have not’s, but told in a more engaging — and astonishing — fashion. I’d still recommend Elysium to sci-fi fans, but now you’ve been warned. Expect an overtly political and heavy handed treatment of the subject even as you’re entertained by the visual elements of the film.