Symbolism and metaphor are seldom-used (and rarely successful) devices when employed in commercial films, especially those big-budget science fiction blockbusters that have been such a critical and box office disappointment this summer. So it comes as more than a pleasant surprise to report that writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s follow-up to his amazingly successful screen debut (District 9) manages to disguise a disturbing piece of social commentary inside this noisy, hyperactive si-fi action flick.
Blomkamp begins his tale with a doomsday view of Los Angles a hundred and fifty years hence, when America’s trend towards elite private schools, gated communities and intense income concentration among the fortunate few lead to an ominous solution - - the creation of a giant space station that’s every real estate agent’s ultimate wet dream … a high tech paradise, just a short 20 minute flight via space shuttle from the socio-economic and ecological that life on earth has become. Only the selected few qualify for residence on Elysium, which is sustained by an army of robots designed by systems genius John Carlyle (William Fichtner) and deployed by Delacourt (Jodie Forster) Elysium’s security chief but built by humans back on earth who are policed by the very machines they’ve been required to manufacture.
When ex-con Max (Matt Damon) gets a potentially fatal dose of radiation as the result of a workplace accident, he decides to join a band of ghetto lowlifes who intend to hijack Carlyle on one of his regular inspection visits to earth, electronically hijack the data in his brain and then use it to forge entry authorizations which will allow them to penetrate Elysium and get Max the medical treatment he needs.
Not surprisingly, problems ensue; not the least of which comes in the person of Kruger (Shalto Copley) Delacourt’s resident spy. He’s given carte blanche to stop Max’s attempted invasion while secretly assisting his boss in a coup that will give her effective control of the floating, manufactured “country” orbiting just beyond the reach of earth. As Max and his strike force elude Kruger, the stage is set for a showdown which will resolve just what citizenship and its rights entail…</p>
Elysium comes with a big production budget which the director and his special effects team use with visually stunning success; L.A. has never looked worse, the robots more frighteningly amoral and the whiz-bang technology more dazzling. But in a story that takes almost two hours in the telling, only Max and Delacourt are given sufficient screen time and dialogue to create Blomkamp’s dyspeptic worldview.
Damon’s Max is everyman; a likeable guy, bulked up by hard physical work and eager only to continue living the decidedly meager life his circumstances dictate. Despite his dead-end job, bleak apartment and solitary existence, his immediate reaction to the industrial accident that threatens his life is the passionate conviction he’ll do whatever it takes and pay whatever the price simply to survive. The actor represents inherent decency and his appealing modesty produces that rarity among movie blockbuster characteristics - a genuinely credible hero.
By contrast, Foster’s Delacourt radiates stiff, lifeless artificiality. (Some critics have excoriated her performance, labeling the worst she’s ever delivered.) But she’s actually personifying Blomkamp’s efforts to make Elysium, for all its ostensible allure, a dull, soulless paradise, where individual personalities are drained of any semblance of vitality. Despite its pollution-free climate and manicured landscapes, Elysium generates a lifestyle about as vital, vivacious and stimulating as a large cocktail party held in any of America’s best-known watering holes for the rich and famous.
Here’s a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster that dares to suggest our current political debates over immigration reform, Obamacare, tax rates, debt ceiling controversies et al may actually lead to a dangerous stratification of society by personal income. Are we headed towards a world where an elite few will resort to any means necessary to distance themselves from the rest of us?
Blomkamp’s first film used the science fiction genre to confront audiences about their prejudices based on race – Elysium asks the same question about biases based on class. Despite the director’s jackhammer approach to his gung-ho subject matter, will audiences respond to the subtext of this loud, action thriller the next time they see a real estate ad which describes a neighborhood as “exclusive” or when they’re screened through a 24-hour security system in order to access a “gated community”?
The Verdict? A furiously entertaining piece of visually exciting mainstream mayhem laced with a genuinely disturbing dose of caution about where we might be headed.
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