Friday 20 September 2013


In 2009, virtually unknown South African director Neill Blomkamp made a splash with his breakout hit District 9, a movie that combined numerous sci-fi tropes to tell a powerful, if none-too-subtle, allegory of Apartheid. Four years later, Blomkamp has returned to science fiction to create another parable, this time with a vastly increased budget and an A-list star. The result is a film that, while given a Hollywood gloss, has far more in common with his previous production than I would have expected, albeit one that never quite reaches the same level of success.

Set in 2154, Elysium take place in a world defined by a class divide so vast that it crosses the expanse of space. The action is split between a grotesquely overpopulated and run-down Los Angeles, filmed in the harrowing slums that border Mexico City, and Elysium itself, an orbital habitat that houses the world's elite in extreme luxury. The contrast between the two realms couldn't be bigger. The slums of LA are almost tangibly grimy, the inhabitants struggling for survival in the dust, forced to choose between dangerous, drudging employment and petty crime. There are hints of higher technology, but is mostly hidden away, used, broken and hastily repaired. The only elements that appear genuinely futuristic are intrusions from Elysium; the droids that act as police, and the shuttles that ferry people to Earth for their rare business visits.

The eponymous habitat is a fantastic creation, a gigantic ring slowly turning in Earth orbit, its inner edge lines with parks and villas. It's a dream holiday location rolled into a space station. The people on Elysium have access to incredible technology that they refuse to share with the 99%. While some of it is hard to swallow, it works on a allegorical level. The medical technology that drives the plot – sickbeds that can scan a human body and instantly cure it of any ailments – seem so miraculous as to be implausible, but then I imagine that western medical care must look pretty unbelievable to someone with a terminal illness living in Darfur or Mogadishu.

Blomkamp reunited with several members of his Dictrict 9 crew, so it's not surprising that there's a similar aesthetic to much of the production. It's not as South African as its forerunner, unsurprisingly, which will make it more accessible to British and American audiences who might not be inclined to sit through two hours of Jo'burg accents. This wasn't always going to be the case; reliable claims that Die Antwoord's Ninja was approached for the lead role make the mind boggle. Eminem is also said to have been approached. In the event, the role went to Matt Damon, for which we must be grateful. Damon, maligned in recent years, is excellent here as blue-collar worker Max, a slightly thuggish ex-con who is forced to work manufacturing the robotic police that make his everyday life such a misery. Damon, bulked up and shaven-headed, portrays Max as man with a barely restrained aggression, someone who is clearly a bad guy but is trying damned hard to be a good one.

Circumstances conspire to reunite Max with Frey, an unattainable beauty with whom he grew up, now working as a nurse in one of LA's grossly overcrowded hospitals. An industrial accident leaves Max with five days to live, his body poisoned by radiation. His only hope of survival lies with the technology of Elysium. Of course, nobody born on Earth is allowed in. From this point, the films switches gears to become more action-oriented, though not in as tonally jarring a way as District 9. Pulled up on once last job so that he might stand a chance of reaching Elysium, Max is fitted with an old exoskeletal suit, a cybernetic prosthesis used by the elite's squadron of agents who carry out the dirty work on Earth. He staggers around looking like a cut-price Borg, but that's the point; this is functional technology, intended to keep Max's body until the job is done. It's a powerful contrast to the glossy tech of Elysium; even the brightly coloured droids that Max battles with look better-made.

The supporting cast deserve praise, with hugely sympathetic performances from Alice Braga as Frey, and particularly Diego Luna as Max's likeable down-and-friend Julio. Wagner Moura comes into his own as Spider, a smuggler of people and technology, who will no doubt be onto big things worldwide thanks to his greater exposure in this movie. The South African element is maintained by District 9 star Sharlto Copley, who brings a terrifying realism to the role of Kruger, a vicious mercenary enhanced by the same type of exo-suit that Max takes on. Copley, whose career is growing all the time, overcomes his moderate stature to become a genuinely dangerous character. The only weak link is, surprisingly, Jodie Foster, whose role as the overarching villain Delacourt seems ill-suited to her style. As Elysium's Secretary of Defense, Delacourt is the kind of hateful character who is totally convinced of her right to act as she does, and despite the best efforts of both the script and actress, never achieves the depth of the other characters.

The allegorical side of the story is broad, of course, exaggerating the elements for greater effect. The rich/poor divide is not as vast as it is here, and the practicalities of living like this make it seem unlikely it could ever quite become that bad. However, it's the self-perpetuating nature of the system that strikes home, with the yawning gap between the classes becoming ever wider. There are weaknesses to the story. There's a moment that seems intended as an allegory of the immigration policies of several wealthy nations, but most notably Australia, when Delacourt orders three refugee ships heading to Elysium to be shot down when they refuse to turn back and return to Earth. On the one hand, this drives home the overall parallels of the story, but on the other, seems like little more than an “Ooh, isn't she evil,” moment to set up the baddie. There's also an extreme one-sidedness to the divide, with everyone on Earth, excepting the mercenaries, portrayed as rough but basically alright sorts, and the Elysiumites as purely the callous rich. There's an attempt to redress the balance when the President of Elysium calls Delacourt up on her actions, but it seems half-hearted. Some more objection from her inferiors, even one of them, might have been worthwhile.

There are other elements that don't quite work. The ending, though climactic, is a little hard to accept – too easy a victory after the hardships taken to reach it. Some more worldbuilding would have made Elysium work better – it never seems to function as a real place in the same way as the future LA. For the most part, though, Elysium works brilliantly, a socio-politic thriller that packs in action alongside effective characterisation and fine performances. While it's never going to have the impact that District 9 had, it is far more accessible, and should appeal more to the non-sci-fi crowd than its alien-infested predecessor. A warning though: there's a level of gore involved that belies the 15 certificate; this is a film that doesn't shy away from showing the consequences of violence.

On the whole, Elysium is a fine science fiction film, with a good deal more brains and heart than most blockbusters. It does, however, make me wonder just how it must have looked from the other side of the gap, for those poor people living in the slums of Mexico City while the film unit, the A-listers and their entourage made use of their world for their new movie.

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