'Elysium' is smart sci-fi with something to say

Max (Matt Damon) handles some high-tech weaponry in "Elysium." - Courtesy

 

 

 

"Elysium" is everything I want out of a science fiction movie.

Far too often these days, "science fiction" just means lasers and spaceships and green aliens. That can be fine (I'm the guy who puts "The Empire Strikes Back" in his all-time top five favorite movies, after all), but the best science fiction is that which reflects back on our lives now through the prism of technology and ideas. This is what "Elysium" does so well.

Neill Blomkamp came out of nowhere in 2009 and delivered about as fierce a feature film debut as one could ask for with the memorable "District 9," a not-so-subtle metaphor for apartheid in South Africa. "Elysium" is proof that Blomkamp wasn't just some flash in the pan and that he's a filmmaker who very much deserves to be paid attention to.

Matt Damon plays Max. Orphaned at a young age, Max spent his life dreaming of leaving the dusty, destitute Earth behind and living on Elysium, the luxurious space station orbiting the planet. That was always little more than a dream, though, as only Earth's wealthy and privileged are allowed there. Everyone else must fend for themselves on a planet that is dying and polluted.

However, after an accident at work leaves the adult Max with only days to live, he becomes desperate to find a way up to Elysium. Desperate enough to have a powerful exoskeleton bolted onto him so that he can download valuable data that could override the space station's entire system. You see, no matter what affliction your body is fighting, Elysium has medical equipment that can heal the human body in a matter of moments, and Max has nothing to lose other than his already doomed life.

Some may be annoyed (or even turned off wholesale) at the very direct political and social overtones (subtlety is clearly beyond Blomkamp's grasp or he's wholly uninterested in it, I'm leaning toward the latter), but thankfully Blomkamp says what he wants to say more or less up front and then lets the very human story and plentiful action take center stage.

That's not to say that those issues don't linger throughout and drive what's happening, but I never felt I was being constantly assaulted by Blomkamp's point of view. Nor does it necessarily demonize the residents of Elysium. Most of them may be oblivious to the realities of Earth, but all of the evil actions are strictly the work of one zealous, greedy character.

Instead, what we get is a film that, much like "District 9," has a dirty, gritty, real-world feel to it peppered with just enough futuristic touches to provide that necessary dose of escapism. Blomkamp once again shows that he is perfectly adept at mixing the plausible and the realistic with the fantastic. Of course, he gets a wonderful assist in accomplishing this thanks to the help of production designer Syd Mead, the guy who helped make "Blade Runner" and "Aliens" such great-looking films.

Damon does a fine job of anchoring the film. This is far from his most challenging role, but he buys into the reality that Blomkamp is building here and he's perfectly believable as a desperate man wading through increasingly dire straits. Not exactly easy to do, especially when you've got the kind of hardware strapped to you that Damon does. It could have all just looked ridiculous, but they make it work. What Blomkamp (wisely) never does, though, is make Max into some unstoppable, nigh-invincible machine. Max is powerful, yes, but he's still just an average guy given above average abilities.

Which makes it exciting when he goes up against Kruger (Sharlto Copley), whose character can only be described as a robo hobo ninja mercenary. Kruger is who Elysium's defense secretary, Ms. Delacourt (Jodie Foster), deploys to destroy any ships illegally approaching the station. I never would have guessed Copley would have been the one to pull off such a wild, wide-eyed and threatening performance as a character like this, but that's precisely what he does here and he instantly becomes the most interesting thing on the screen every time he shows up.

If there's a problem here, it's that Foster's character feels too one-note. The rest of the characters aren't terribly deep, but there's even less under the surface it seems with Delacourt than everyone else. Plus, Foster's choice of accent was oddly distracting.

Regardless, this is one of the best films of its kind this year and easily a contender for my Best Of list at year's end. It may not be subtle, but there's no denying the importance of the issues that Blomkamp brings up here and thankfully he lets it all speak for itself rather than ramming things continuously down our throats.

Grade: A

 

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