Starring : Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, Faran Tahir
Director : Neill Blomkamp
Release Date : 22 Aug 2013
The District 9 director follows up with an uneven near-future fairytale that has patches of brilliance.
THIS is a sci-fi actioner and allegorical tale wrapped up in a near-future fairytale. “Once upon a time, therewill live a man who looks up at the sky and dreams of a better life ...” and all that obstacle-overcoming, hope-when-all-seems-lost stuff that ensues from such dreaming.
It’s also director Neill Blomkamp’s first film since the audacious, highly original District 9 from four years back – you know, the one with the alien “prawns” and also the one that introduced Sharlto Copley to international audiences.
Much anticipation has built up around Elysium, what with it being the new film from a man once hailed as the next major talent in sci-fi filmmaking. The good news is that it has just as much of the trademark style and bravura action (make that “carnage”) as Blomkamp’s debut film. The not-so-good news: it undergoes a structural meltdown in the last half-hour that renders the climax rushed and confused instead of meaningful.
By the year 2154, the Earth has become a toxic, overcrowded place where (what passes for) order is maintained by robots that enforce draconian laws. Most of humanity is trapped on this still blue but fading marble, while the wealthy and privileged have bought their way off the planet and now live on a space station known as Elysium, the ultimate gated and guarded community.
Disease and injury are mere trivialities on Elysium (in Greek mythology: a beautiful meadow where the favoured of Zeus find eternal rest), where the citizens live in palatial villas and every home has a super high-tech medical bed that diagnoses and heals illnesses and wounds even more effectively than Dr McCoy’s 23rd-century modified electric shavers on Star Trek.
It’s a fake and fragile world, to be sure, but so idyllic as to make its occupants thankful that they’re up there and not down here, and so alluring as to drive those down here to desperate lengths to get up there.
Max DaCosta (Matt Damon) is one of the teeming billions on Earth and he has always dreamed of being able to afford a ticket to Elysium since childhood. Now he struggles to earn an honest living after a youthful life of crime (Grand Theft Auto? He doesn’t need to play it – he’s lived it.) but one day, his world is turned upside-down when he absorbs a lethal dose of radiation at work.
Realising that his only chance for survival is to get up to Elysium and its miracle-working medical bed, he offers his services to the neighbourhood people smuggler and information broker Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for passage there.
The man wants him to pull off an unusual robbery – well, maybe not so unusual for a century-plus from now – but what Max mostly succeeds in doing is bringing himself to the attention of Elysium’s stiff-upper-lipped Defence Secretary, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her barely-leashed hound/agent, Kruger (Copley).
They are a fine pair of villains drawn from both ends of the spectrum of evil. Delacourt is the type who coldly orders the shooting down of unauthorised shuttles bearing illegal “immigrants” – including sick children, the evil witch (told you this was a fairytale) – to Elysium and doesn’t hesitate at shouting down its wimpy President Patel (Faran Tahir) for his lack of will.
Kruger is the sort of cartoon loon who will rip anything or anyone apart if it gets in the way of his job, which is mainly to enforce Delacourt’s will so long as it also gives him an outlet to indulge his inner psychopath.
Both Foster and Copley are great in their roles, and it’s a pity that this bond of villainy undergoes a curious disintegration towards the end of the film. It just smacks of either lazy or slipshod writing on Blomkamp’s part and robs the climactic confrontation of any dramatic meat, turning it into just another slug-fest.
On the opposite side, we have the disillusioned Max, seemingly dealt the cruellest of hands by an indifferent higher power. He is only in it for himself, not even for the terminally ill daughter of his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga). Damon, too, is effective as the dreamer with a wonky moral compass that seems to itself at the most crucial moments.
I liked that the story doesn’t try to apologise for Max’s questionable life choices, leaving him a bitterly sarcastic shell of a man who, more than once, is cast down before the viewer as a pathetic and broken soul. Well, all for a more meaningful salvation, eh?
The haves and have-nots, the up-theres and the down-heres ... Elysium sets up the opposing halves of its class struggle quickly enough but doesn’t do very much with them beyond having the privileged ones (like William Fichtner’s billionaire industrialist) wrinkle their noses at the great unwashed.
There’s a lot of missed opportunity when the halves are finally forced into proximity. I would have welcomed some interaction between Max (or at least Frey) and Delacourt, and perhaps a peek or two into the minds (as opposed to just the manners) of the elite who dwell on Elysium. As it is, the whole conflict and even the resolution are rendered somewhat simplistically.
But maybe that’s the point Blomkamp is trying to make, a simple one really, given the dream-like outpouring at the film’s end: there really is more than enough bounty within Man’s reach, whether from nature or through the work of his hands, if only people would be satisfied with taking just what they needand not hoarding everything they want.
A tall order, of course, but that’s why we need fables like this, maddeningly incomplete as they are.