Directed by Neill Blomkamp
In a summer dominated by painfully compromised blockbusters—a Star Trek that culminates in two white men punching each other down by the waterfront; a Superman movie that’s terrified to spend quality time with its $250 million leading man; and the wet n' wild Pacific Rim, whose only memorable qualities add up to about half an hour of monster grappling—there was maybe good reason to hope that South African junk-food auteur Neill Blomkamp would bring the heat. Blompkamp’s supposedly high-concept District 9 (it’s like apartheid, but with aliens!) deserved, and won, credit for its jarringly rendered vision of a gritty, muddy, bloody sci-fi Global South. Even so, the film’s broad satire and save-the-space-babies dramaturgy made it hard to ignore the creeping, impolite feeling that Blomkamp’s execution was running at a stronger clip than his ideas.
Well, guess what: Elysium is crap. Overpopulation, deforestation and the (unexplained) death of the global middle class have split humanity between the downtrodden and soot-covered inhabitants of a blue shitpile named Earth and the .0001% who have exported themselves to the floating green ringworld known as Elysium. Despite taking place in the mid-22nd century, the film asserts front and center that mankind is living out a looped replay of the early 21st, complete with dubstep, Adidas, and Bulgari. Matt Damon plays a lovably meatheaded LA carjacker gone right, who now works in a hellish robot factory lorded over by William Fichtner, playing the biggest defense contractor in the galaxy.
Meanwhile, back on Elysium, the wealthiest survive by stepping into glistening white “medbays” that eradicate any disease or injury whatsoever, effectively allowing them to live forever. Jodie Foster steers the film in a more intelligent direction whenever she’s onscreen—imagine Obama’s hardline policies coming out of Christine Lagarde’s mouth in a Margaret Thatcher accent—as the space-base’s Secretary of Defense, who feels that security should be preserved at any cost. Her pushover president disagrees, so Foster and Fichtner get to talking, and agree to a coup—but because this is Elysium, it’s not called a coup, it’s called “rerouting the sequence.”
Blomkamp gets the dehumanized English that has flourished under American imperialism; the ultimate villain, a bearded cybernetic black-ops sociopath named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), is referred to as an “asset.” When Damon is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, he becomes hellbent on getting to a medbay on Elysium, and thus aligns himself with his old carjacking crew, led by Brazilian star Wagner Moura. Tricked out with a cybernetic exoskeleton, his One Last Job in exchange for the ticket is kidnapping Fichtner and downloading his brain, but when Damon and his crew accidentally download the coup “sequence,” Moura suddenly becomes a revolutionary. And suddenly Elysium reveals itself as the skimpiest socialist tract, details-wise, since OWS.
Despite some ingenious casting, Blomkamp’s intellectual scope remains tiny. Damon is motivated to martyrdom not by injustice, but for his hot childhood friend (Alice Braga) and her daughter, and indeed any movie that presents its viewer with not one but two disease-ridden little Latina girls on the verge of being massacred by robot SWAT teams is probably pushing a more audience-flattering agenda than it wants to admit. The screenplay is doggedly uninterested in moral ambiguity, or in interrogating the actual effect of Elysium's clean air on its characters’ perspectives. Despite shoutouts to illegal immigration, economic inequality and our ever-expanding security state, Elysium remains most keen on white (if tattooed) savior iconography, weepy angel choruses, and occasionally—and pretty successfully—blowing shit up. It's a fine line (or maybe more of a laser beam) between moral courage and mere courtesy.
Opens August 9