Film Review: ‘Elysium’
So close and yet so far, the colony of Elysium hovers just outside Earth’s atmosphere, a mere 19-minute shuttle ride away but figurative light years for the downtrodden proletarian masses of the 22nd century. So begins the much-anticipated second feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose 2009 “District 9” was one of the few recent sci-fi/fantasy pics (along with “Inception” and “Children of Men”) that deserved to be called visionary. Here, Blomkamp delivers a less dazzling but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity. Result confirms the helmer as much more than a one-hit wunderkind and should easily surpass “District 9’s” $210 million worldwide haul, if not its massive profit margin.
Expectations can weigh heavily on a young director (Blomkamp is all of 33) who comes out of nowhere with an unexpected critical and commercial smash. But Blomkamp seems fully at ease and in control from the earliest scenes of “Elysium,” which introduce us to a futuristic Los Angeles (circa 2154) that has, in one of the film’s canniest conceits, effectively become Mexico City (where most of the pic was shot). The only apocalypse that happened here was an environmental and economic one, the rich having long ago decamped for their gated community in the sky, leaving the underclasses behind to breathe the polluted air and clamor over the scarce remaining resources. (The overhead shots of the filthy, teeming city, with billowing smoke drifting into a hazy pink sky, recall the opening images of “Blade Runner,” but with the overpopulated centers of the developing world as a template instead of Tokyo.)
Simmering or open class warfare has been a rich trope for sci-fi futurecasting as far back as Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis” and as recently as “In Time,” “Total Recall” and Michael Winterbottom’s fine, underseen “Code 46.” Lang’s influence is particularly evident in “Elysium’s” army of industrious worker bees slaving away on the factory floor of the Armadyne corporation, whose slithery CEO, Carlyle (William Fichtner), developed Elysium and all the technology that makes it run. One of those workers is Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief who used to dream that he might someday buy his own ticket to a better life, but now just keeps his head down and his nose to the grindstone.
Probably because he had a much larger budget and more studio oversight this time around, Blomkamp must have felt he had to craft a more traditionally heroic protagonist than “District 9’s” incompetent corporate lackey Wikus Van De Merwe, who owed his job to nepotism and found little sympathy on the homefront after being transformed into a mutant alien. Damon’s Max undergoes his own life-altering transformation early on in “Elysium,” doused at work with a toxic dose of radiation that leaves him with only a few days to live. But even before then, Max has a glint in his eyes that tells he’s the one who will somehow lead his people out of darkness.
Max also gets a fairly standard-issue love interest in the form of Frey (Alice Braga), a beneficent nurse who’s been sweet on him ever since their childhood days together in a Catholic orphanage. After years apart, she re-enters his life with a leukemia stricken daughter in tow. Together, they all seek passage to Elysium, where every home comes equipped with a state-of-the-art healing bay that quite literally cures whatever ails you.