‘Elysium’ presents a grim sci-fi future that looks a lot like today
Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
R, 109 min.
Released Aug. 9, 2013
In the not-so-distant future, 140 years from now, Earth has become an overpopulated slum teeming with crime and disease, and those who can afford to flee have fled—to a pristine orbiting paradise called Elysium, a humongous, high-in-the-sky space station with manicured suburban lawns, gleaming mansions, and the technology to instantly cure any injury or disease.
When Max (Matt Damon), one of the Earth-bound grubs who makes his way each morning through the rubble and rabble of Los Angeles to his factory job churning out the robotics that keep Elysium humming, is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in an industrial accident, it’s literally his death sentence. Given five days to live, he knows his only chance is to somehow get to Elysium and one of its heal-anything machines.
But trips there are obscenely expensive, and fraught with risk. Elysium’s flinty secretary of defense (Jodie Foster) has been known to order unauthorized incoming shuttles—and their “illegal” immigrant passengers—vaporized as they approach. And anyone who makes it past the space station’s heavenly—and heavily defended—portals is deported immediately back to Earth.
Max, however, becomes more than just another Earthling wanting to be made whole again. In exchange for a spot on the shuttle, which he has no way to afford, he makes a deal with the shady operator: He agrees to undertake an extremely dangerous bit of sabotage that involves stealing encrypted data from the brain of a weasel-y Elysium-connected corporate exec, and to the surgical affixing of a high-tech robotic “exo-suit” that gives him the super-strength he’ll need to do the job.
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose “District 9” (2009) was a space-alien tale with stark parallels to the rifts in his native South Africa caused by racial segregation, has created another sci-fi parable with charged political and social overtones. It’s impossible to miss the themes of health and medical care only for those who can afford it, a society in which many jobs have been taken over by compassionless robots, and a “utopia” that repels undesirables seeking a better life.
Alice Braga plays one of Max’s childhood friends, Frey, now grown up with a child of her own, a young daughter dying of leukemia. Sharlto Copley, who starred as the hero of “District 9,” sinks his teeth into the role of a vicious mercenary with an arsenal of dirty tricks, assigned to keep Max from following through on his mission, a task that’s soon shown to have implications far beyond simply curing his own radiation poisoning.
“Elysium” is an impressive bit of moviemaking, especially as a one-man show for its writer-director, who’s done all by himself what other movies, especially movies of this scale, sometimes require teams of collaborators to manage.
This is his vision, his story, his execution, and Blomkamp has delivered a picture that easily stands as one of the best sci-fi flicks of the summer, a ripping, gripping fable about two worlds in a dreary future that, unsettlingly, doesn’t seem as far out of synch with today, or as far away, as we might like to think.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine