The Earth is a hive of poverty in 2154 where the wealthy and powerful live in an orbiting space station called Elysium, free from disease and hunger. Where the majority of humanity lives in crowded cities struggling to keep low paying jobs and finding their next meal on the ruined planet below, the population above live a life of luxury, peace and freedom. Max DeCosta dreams of reaching Elysium with his childhood sweetheart, Frey and her daughter Matilda. But Max is an ex-con working a factory job trying to stay straight. An accident as work where he is exposed to a high dose of radiation leaves him with five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan with a smuggler named Spider to break into Elysium.
After the success of District 9 (2009), director Neill Blomkamp returns to the big screen with another Sci-Fi epic, Elysium. The film is an intelligent, emotional and action-packed – a science-fiction roller-coaster. It packs a punch, thematically and politically. The stuff of great science fiction entertainment. In some ways, Elysium is a World power while the desolate cities of Earth are Third-World nations fighting poverty and starvation. Jodie Foster is the self-centered politician serving to protect the power, security and wealth amassed in Elysium. Matt Damon is the underdog, the beaten and oppressed, but flawed, hero dreaming of a better life, for himself and his friends. Blomkamp sets up the story so Damon’s Max must rise up to become a hero, to fight for and perhaps sacrifice his life for all of humanity. Add to that, robots, space shuttles, advanced weaponry and a bitching space station. Elysium is fun, thought-provoking, at times challenging, Summer entertainment.
Neill Blomkamp treats the content seriously, as he did in District 9, to the film’s benefit. The drive and determination of the narrative paired with spectacular effects and sets allow the film to whisk past many of the story’s plot holes and contrivances. The film starts with Max as a young boy meeting Frey for the first time sharing his desire to go to Elysium. He promises to takes his young love along with him. When the film cuts to the present with a 30 something Max, the story finds him an ex-con working hard labor for minimal wages, never delivering on his promise and loosing contact with the woman he loves. But Max is trying hard to stay straight. Fate has other plans. An accident has Max trapped in a radiation zone zapping him with a large dose leaving him with five days to live. With no one or no where else to turn, Max agrees to a local smuggler’s demands in exchange for transportation to Elysium, where Max figures he can be cured. All he has to do is steal the mind of the wealthy businessman, downloading his thoughts into an exo-skeleton keeping Max mobile and strong. Max quickly finds himself entrapped over his head when his target turns out to be a major player in an attempted coup to take over Elysium by the Secretary of Defense. The hounds are unleashed with a rogue agent named Kruger on his trail to retrieve the downloaded secrets and kill Max.
On a lighter note, the film has a lot in common with Star Wars, at least the A New Hope origins of the much-beloved franchise. Max is Luke Skywalker with an exo-skeleton as his “force” or lightsaber. Wagner Moura as Spider is Han Solo offering the hero transportation to Death Star (Elysium) in far off space to save the beautiful princess, Leia – or rather his sweetheart Frey, and her daughter. But evil forces are out to stop him. Grand Moff Tarkin, Jodie Foster as the corrupt Secretary of Defense Delacourt, stands in the rebellion’s way with the evil Darth Vader, Sharlto Copley as Kruger, at her side. The visuals even have a spectacular nod to the film as a set of shuttles zoom past in space with the camera following them overhead, not unlike the beginning of the 1977 classic. More visual cues continue as the hero’s homeland and space ships are dirty, grimy with filth and neglect while the space station is pristine, protected by fast, agile, sleek fighters. The underdog must prevail and Matt Damon’s Max has no more clue how to do so than Mark Hamill’s Luke ever did.
Elysium has both elements in its cinematic paws, juggling the fun and the political. The result is a gem of science fiction film. Neill Blomkamp has created a broadly sketched, fully recognizable world for his tale. The fantasy elements are not too far fetched and match common class struggles throughout history and throughout society. The haves and the have-nots, at its simplest. Max’s world is dirty, desolate, a hell-hole. The despair is painted on every wall, every man, woman and child. Elysium is in contrast a paradise with lush green lawns and spectacular views. The space station is amazing to behold from within and, more importantly from without – from Earth, Elysium is nearly heaven, with the promise of freedom from oppression, hunger and disease. In fact, you may live forever, where life pods can cure cancer and re-atomize most any ailment.
Jodie Foster is fascinating as Delacourt, the Secretary of Defense. While her actions are despicable, her motivations are clear – she wants to protect Elysium, hold it as close to her chest as possible. She shoots down unauthorized shuttles approaching Elysium without hesitation or remorse. They are the enemy at the gate and must be destroyed, they want to take what makes Elysium valuable. She even wants to overthrow the President to ensure the station’s protection. In her mind, she is doing was is needed, what is right. That is the making of a great villain and Foster chews up the scenery as she never has before. She is arrogant and self important with the authority and power to back it up. It’s only her odd choice of accent that gets in the way of making her performance one of the year’s best.
Matt Damon is fantastic as Max DeCosta the down-on-his-luck hero of Elysium. He has the same drive, determination and compassion he displayed in Contagion (2011). He’s a flawed hero, one that isn’t pretentious or hard to relate to. He is living with his mistakes and his dreams are not too different than many in the film’s audience. His drive begins as self preservation but evolves into fighting for his girlfriend and her daughter and further to his fellow man, the oppressed, humanity. It turns into an entertaining and engrossing character arc. He is also a striking hero wrapped in an exo-skeleton providing him the edge he needs to survive long enough to secure his freedom and regain his health.
Elysium is powerful, a superb science fiction film about man’s overcoming oppression and misery. It’s Robin Hood against robots and high-powered artillery. It’s a familiar well-worn tale dressed in new clothing. And it works. Matt Damon drives home an intimate and sympathetic role, the dark horse hero with a long shot of succeeding where everyone else fails. He is Luke Skywalker aiming his photo torpedoes at the Death Star. Jodie Foster is at her scene chewing best as Delacourt alone in her singular mission to protect Elysium at all cost. Sharlto Copley is manic and frightening as Krugar, Delacourt’s rogue secret agent. He is unstable and unpredictable, dangerous and deadly. Even if his accent makes much of his dialog inaudible, his menacing presence is undeniable. Director Neill Blomkamp has another hit on his hands, not as impressionable and surprising as District 9, but superior in execution and tone. One of the best sci-fi films of 2013.
4 out of 5