Don’t you hate it when science-fiction films pitch you their premise in a couple of terse opening captions? Well yes, but clumsy as the device is, it can be useful shorthand, cutting out the need for lengthy and expensive exposition.
Elysium’s opening card sets the narrative in a near future when “Earth was diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated”. Note that “was”. Elysium, in the best tradition of dystopian future fiction, is really about now. Neill Blomkamp’s adventure is set on a blighted Earth reduced to poverty and ruin, its surface all trash mounds and crumbling townships. As for the pampered rich, they inhabit the luxury space station Elysium, an artificial paradise of mansions, lawns and lakesides – a sort of Dubai in the sky.
Elysium reworks a simple but potent idea that has fuelled science-fiction at least since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927 – an Us and Them stand-off which must end with the disenfranchised workers rising up against the elite. Blomkamp restyles this staple concept as a cross between City of God and WALL•E – although Elysium is neither as relentlessly funky as the favela drama, nor as pithy an eco-political satire as the Pixar masterpiece.
South African writer-director Blomkamp made his mark three years ago with the inventive, mischievous District 9, about aliens on earth subjected to a future version of apartheid (perhaps 2009 was a little late to be making apartheid satires but lest we forget, and all that). There’s a similar streak of social rage firing Elysium, although it expresses itself pretty simplistically. In 2154 Los Angeles, Max (Matt Damon) is an orphanage kid turned feared gang leader, now reformed as a sober-minded member of the workforce. Being a working stiff in future LA is pretty tough, with the city policed by brutal robocops (not just part robo, like RoboCop himself, but all circuitry and steel, and not even 20 seconds to comply). Further sanctions are handed out by automated parole officers with acute sensitivity to client responses (“Are you being sarcastic and/or abusive?”).
Then there are the appalling working conditions in Max’s factory, which leave him blasted by radiation and with only days left to live. So there’s never been a better time to try to get to Elysium, where they have pods that restore patients to glowing health, even if they’ve had half their face blasted off. Now that’s cosmetic surgery you can warm to.
The government of Elysium, of course, encourages earthling visits about as much as the US immigration service welcomes Latin American jobseekers. Elysium’s security is run with draconian smoothness by Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), an ice queen with tailored suits and the strangest, most distracting enunciation this usually measured performer has ever offered us. She seems to have studied out-takes from Meryl Streep’s Thatcher, and thrown in the odd supercilious Bond-villain pause: “I’m not interested in your … (count to three) ... little ideas.”
There are some nice touches, not least the use of prominent non-Anglo casting, with not only Mexican and Brazilian co-stars (Diego Luna and Alice Braga as Max’s closest buddies, Wagner Moura as a gang boss with the makings of a liberation leader and Che facial stylings to match), but also South Africa’s Sharlto Copley (from District 9) as a wild-eyed mercenary. Copley is furiously excessive – especially in contrast to Damon’s constipated demeanour as an aggrieved muscleman – but there’s something reassuringly nostalgic to his character. It takes you back to the days when a snarled Afrikaans accent told you who was the baddie.
But the film’s intelligence is drowned in action-pic noise and considerable sloppiness. Among the clutter: sentimental back-story sequences in slo-mo, two (yes, two!) adorable little Earth girls in desperate need of medical attention, and the moment when Copley straps on a monstrous metal exo-skeleton to fight Max and the film subsides into just another robo-wars thrash-out. It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the masses are finally vindicated and human dignity restored – I just wish it weren’t all done with a panacea-like piece of software that’s basically a magic wand waved at all social ills. What happened to the old school of pessimist dystopian pictures? They didn’t always cheer you up but they were a lot quieter – you could actually hear the ideas.
NEXT WEEK Jonathan Romney takes in US science-fiction (or is it?) puzzler Upstream Color