Dystopian futures, oppressive regimes and the inequalities between the haves and have nots, have been the mainstay of science fiction for decades. The political dimensions of such narratives are usually glossed over and seldom garner any attention from critics as they are simply plot devices, designed to set up a more specific story. Yet for some reason Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, seems to have been labelled "sci-fi socialism" upon its release by certain institutions. In today's unsophisticated language is meant to have negative connotations. Such comments should be dismissed as they frequently come from quarters that have a poor understanding of what exactly socialism is and little interest in genuine film reviews.
Elysium is simply a movie about inequality and the consequences that arise from such a state of affairs. It touches upon such weighty themes as faith, private healthcare and immigration. Yet rather than preach about these issues they are mainly plot devices to be explored cinematically. So, Elysium is filled with imagery such as a Los Angeles reduced to a favela and public services outsourced to robots. The depiction of poverty, segregation and crime is worryingly plausible as it is so clearly based upon contemporary news footage that we can see on any TV channels at any time of day. This is vividly contrast by the clinical beauty and corporate order of orbiting space station of Elysium, were the wealthy reside.
Enter Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a paroled professional thief, struggling to stay upon the straight and narrow. After an industrial accident renders him in need of healthcare that can only be found on Elysium, he reluctantly takes a job to kidnap an industrialist (William Fitchner). The plan is to steal data directly from his head that will allow earth-bound citizens access to Elysium. However, head of defence Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has no intention of seeing her exclusive community overwhelmed by illegal immigrants and dispatches sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to clear up any loose ends. What starts as a personal journey for Max, with his own life hanging in the balance, soon becomes a mission with far wider implications and much higher stakes.
Neill Blomkamp excels at setting up a vision of the future that is credible, despite showing quite little. There are some wide CGI shots of a decaying city but he mainly manages to reinforce the concept by the finer details of the production design. Litter strewn streets, smothered in graffiti, hospitals with precious few resources, overwhelmed by patients. Civic offices populated with automated machines dealing with endless lines of the public. Think of a downbeat version of Johnny Cab from Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall and you'll get the idea. The depiction of military technology is also based upon ongoing contemporary research, with a focus on drones and VTOL based weapons platforms. The CGI is particularly cutting edge, making the law enforcement robots worryingly realistic.
Although there are many familiar tropes and conventions used in Elysium, Neill Blomkamp brings a fresh eye to interpreting them. This is a pleasantly non-US-centric movie, with an international cast adding flavour to the plot. Los Angeles is shown to be predominantly Hispanic with a use of both English and Spanish. Elysium itself is also multicultural, with its President Patel reflecting the growing wealth of India. The final act does to a degree paint the story into a corner and leads to an outcome that is fairly predictable. Yet the ending raises a great many questions and certainly doesn't give the audience a convenient conclusion to all plot strands. It is worth reflecting upon Secretary Delacourt's final dialogue for example, as well as the potential corporate response to events in the final act.
Director Neill Blomkamp again proves that he is a film maker to keep an eye on. If you have not seen his previous Movie District 9, then do so. It is equally as innovative, international and thought provoking. Although far from perfect, with some instances of curious editing, Elysium still provides an above average character and plot driven science fiction movie. It also eschews the current trend for bland PG-13 rated action with a robust R rating. It certainly has the most memorable cinematic villain we’ve seen for a while.