Brace yourself for some radical African science fiction!
(Warning: This review contains SPOILERS!!)
The year is 2154. Earth is an overpopulated dump of crime, dirt and disease. The wealthy elite has installed themselves in a large luxurious space habitat in Earth orbit: Elysium. Here everyone has access to medical technology that cures any sickness; any injury – even cancer. Property prices on Elysium start at 250 million dollars. No riff-raff.
Still, the riff-raff knows about the amazing medical science on Elysium, and they are desperate enough that they never stop trying to get up there. Those very few illegals immigrants who make it up there are instantly deported back to Earth. Or worse.
Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is a 36-year-old Earth ex-con who has grown up in crime and poverty and spent large parts of his life in jail. Now, however, he is determined to keep his nose clean, and is ridiculed in his neighborhood for actually having a job and saying no to petty criminal schemes (despite being good at them). As a kid he had a child’s romance with a girl called Frey (Alice Braga) that he latterly lost contact with. He promised her to one day take her to Elysium.
One day at his workplace, where he manufactures robocops (the means of his own oppression – same idea as in last year’s Total Recall remake), Max is accidentally exposed to a blast of radiation, and told by a medbot that he will die of radiation sickness in five days. Knowing that his only chance to survive is to reach Elysium, he calls on his local crime boss and tech wizard, Spider (Wagner Moura), who agrees to get Max to Elysium if Max in turn agrees to snatch an Elysium citizen and get valuable Elysium codes from his brain. Max chooses to target his ruthless corporate employer, Carlyle (William Fichtner), who, coincidentally, is transporting (in his brain, yes) a reboot program intended to coup the Elysium government, so the hardline Secretary of Defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), can install herself as the new president. On obtaining this data, Max now becomes the most wanted man on the planet, and Delacourt sends her secret mercenary operative, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), after him. Action ensues. Plenty of action. Highly visually effective.
I love the ending of the movie. Although it was not clearly specified in the course of the movie, we end up discovering – which also makes sense in retrospect, considering what year this is – that a dispassionate AI-program is running Elysium and the robocop police force, and with a simple reprogramming all the privileges of health and technology is suddenly extended to Earth citizens as well as Elysium ones. This, to me, is an illustration of the positive power of science. The AI-program was pre-adapted, to borrow a term from evolutionary theory, for such a world-saving task, but hitherto implemented only for the benefit of the rich, until a simple act of changing a single programming parameter was carried out. In other words, the solution to the problems of poverty and sickness already existed through the wonders of technology; to implement it only required a change in political will. This is the major message of the movie. The problems of the world can be solved, through science combined with altruism. This is exactly what I believe, and this is exactly the kind of message I want from a good science fiction movie.
Like District 9 before it, Elysium is a movie with a very overt political message, clad in a thinly veiled symbolism that is virtually impossible to mistake. D9 tackled racism and apartheid; Elysium takes on the corporate pharmaceutical industry, calling its bluff on a real-world issue close to the South African director Neill Blomkamp’s heart and home: the issue that high-tech medical aid and easy cures for many widespread ailments exist, but are only made available to those who can pay.
Yes, this is a movie that you have to read; to interpret. But, gratifyingly, it doesn’t beat around the bush as to what it is actually about; the whole core problematic is about access to medical aid. Blomkamp treats this problem by chronicling a situation in which the resolution is brought about by events clearly symbolizing a people’s revolt against the corporate medical industry. Which is also a display of Third World people encroaching on the rich Western world.
The pharmaceutical industry symbolism in this movie works equally well as a larger analogy of the rich world’s lack of genuine involvement in the problems of the poor world. Elysium = the Western world. Earth = Africa. This movie is African science fiction in every admirable sense of the term. It is seen from that specific viewpoint, and showing Western audiences that we are the citizens on Elysium who don’t care about the poor and diseased Third World populations.
And why stop there? Secretary Delacourt and the psychotic Kruger can even be seen as the NSA, exceeding the established rules without anybody doing more about it that give them a moral lecture of no consequence. Or Kruger may represent local African muscle in the employ of Western corporations, which infuses his eventual rebellion against Delacourt with plenty more meaning. However you look at it, Elysium is a deeply anti-establishment movie.
In short, a great and massively thought-provoking experience for an intelligent audience.
Even so, and despite actually being awfully clear as to what it is about, Elysium has received quite a battering from some critics (though certainly not from all; according to Rotten Tomatoes two thirds of all reviews are positive). They accuse it of being incoherent, inconsistent, overly preachy, too commercial and having a cop-out ending. I will grant the overly preachy part, but this is only a problem if you don’t agree with the political message, and, frankly, if you don’t agree that the world’s poor should be given access to medical help by the filthy rich governments and corporations of the industrialized world, you’re nothing but an evil bastard.
The remaining points of criticism can be divided up in two kinds, as I see it. Allegations of plot problems, deficient world-building and commercialism are generally false; some audiences may not understand the nuances of this story’s details and its symbolical setting, but the plot is as it is supposed to be, and I have no doubt that the director fully achieved what he set out to do. The specific ending, while symbolically encompassing larger solutions, only really says that medical help is now available for those Earth people suffering from diverse ailments. It doesn’t necessarily imply that billions of Earth people should now move to Elysium. It is simply an equalization of status and privilege, to the best ability of the controlling system to provide.
The charges of commercialism are tied to the action sequences, which some people feel detract from the deeper, serious message. My reaction to this is: if you let yourself be distracted by action, it’s your own fault. It is you who control whether your brain is switched on or off. If Hollywood has conditioned you to turn it off every time there is action on the screen, well, congratulations, you have been bitch-slapped and beaten into submission by those who dispense entertainment for no other reason than to make money. But that is not the only function that action scenes serve. Movies contain action because action is entertaining. It props up the narrative; propels the plot. It keeps the attention focused and the audience alert, so that everything else in the movie can also be absorbed, rather than falling by the wayside because the audience gets bored. Action is commercial, sure, but it is commercial because it is genuinely desireable. It is fun. It looks great in a movie. In short, it is a highly effective storytelling device. If the story is good and intelligent, intense action sequences make the movie better, not worse. They are used particularly well in Elysium.
Some have criticized the science and the allegedly deficient world-building in the movie, but I see no major problems. If you think about how this world works, it all makes sense. One point I will grant, though: the artificial atmosphere on Elysium was open into space! That did seem like an ad hoc way of allowing space shuttles to land there without the tedious business of mucking about in an airlock. However, this is 2154, after all. Is it so much to ask that the viewers devise their own explanation for this, such as, oh, a thin and shuttle-permeable force field that keeps the atmosphere in place? Surely we can do this – as science fiction fans we are basically obligated to!
The second kind of criticism concerns aspects of the movie-making craft itself; the acting, the characterization, the way of telling the story. Yes, I agree there are some problems here. The only character who is strong enough to acquit himself well is Kruger, and perhaps also Spider. Hm, and Frey’s daughter. Every other major character seems underused and under-acted. Max Da Costa should have been relevant, vital and identifiable, but Damon’s performance in this case is not quite intense enough to achieve this. The role of Foster’s Secretary Delacourt was disappointingly small; one feels she might have added an additional aspect of real epicness if she had been better featured. Delacourt was not completely evil, though; notice what she said when Frey was about to treat her injury. As for Foster’s accent… apparently there is a large segment of the movie-going audience whose whole impression of a movie hinges entirely on the character’s exact accents and whether they think these accents are appropriate or not. I really cannot take those people seriously. Get a life, accent-Nazis! The movie-makers almost certainly know more about it than you do.
I did feel that, in the beginning of the movie, the plot proceeded in a more descriptive than narrative way, which wasn’t very effective to me. It’s possible, though, that this was an attempt to lend the story a documentary-style element, but it didn’t work well. Certainly, I would also have loved it if the movie had explored its setting more; showed us more about the life and people both on Earth and on Elysium.
However – and I have to emphasize this – in light of how overwhelmingly well the radical power of the basic premise and its progressive message works, and how beautifully the action contributed to hammering home these points, these problems pale into near-insignificance. It is a rare movie that is completely perfect on all counts.
I love the politics of this movie and of its director; this is powerful stuff. I will end by saying that another big thing I love about this movie is its visual brightness. So many movies – even sci-fi and other genres besides horror – consider it edgy and cool to be dark and shadowy in three out of four sequences, and I’ve always hated that. Give me something to look at! Delicious earth tones, plenty of sunshine, lovely green plants and blue water and flowers of all colors. This movie delivers in the visual sense like few others, and, as a friend remarked, it has a distinctive look that doesn’t resemble any other movie. That is a substantial achievement in itself.
A beautiful, beautiful movie. Perhaps not as edgy, innovative and shockingly in-your-face as District 9, but with better visuals and better entertainment value, and worth thinking about for days. Thank you, mr. Blomkamp, for the year’s best sci-fi blow-out; please keep doing what you are doing!
If you desire more details of the movie’s setting, there is interesting additional info to be had at the official site.
Elysium is in UK cinemas on August 21.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura and others.
Runtime: 109 min.