With Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout. 109 minutes.
ELYSIUM is like a fresh rain after a season of drought. Animated offerings aside, this summer’s science fiction films have offered us nothing but superheroes and CGI monsters, with things like plot and character only an afterthought. Oh, some were certainly entertaining, but what was the last science fiction movie that made you think? “Pacific Rim?” “After Earth?” “Oblivion?” Please. The only part of the brain any of these engaged was the part that looked at the special effects and said, “Oooh! Shiny!”
With “Elysium,” writer-director Neill Blomkamp demonstrates that his imaginative debut “District 9” (2009) was no fluke. Set in the world of 2154, Earth is an oppressive and downtrodden place operating for the benefit of what we might call the 1%, who are living a life of ease in the orbiting space station of the title. This is hardly an original concept. Not only have we seen similar set-ups this year in both “Upside Down” and “Oblivion,” but it dates back to at least to “Metropolis” (1927), which also sees a worker revolt against the elites.
Matt Damon is Max, a lowly laborer who has done time in the past but has since gone straight. When he gets a fatal dose of radiation doing a job he was ordered to do, he is told he has just five days to live. Up on Elysium they have health care that can fix him. (Indeed, the technology is so advanced it borders on magic.) However such care is only available to citizens of Elysium and they intend to keep it that way.
Up on Elysium, the defense chief Delacourt (a chilling Jodie Foster) does whatever it takes to kill or expel those who illegally try to enter her paradise, including employing the ruthless Kruger (Sharlto Copley). When the president rebukes her, she makes plans to overthrow him and enact the security measures she deems necessary. This involves Carlyle (William Fichtner) transporting key software in his brain from Earth to Elysium. However, Max rejoins his old outlaw pals who will get him to Elysium if he helps them on a job. Their target is the unsuspecting Carlyle.
The plot gets a bit more complicated with the arrival of Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga), now a doctor with a dying daughter who is also denied access to Elysium. What should be clear is that with all these conflicting and contrary motives, some of these characters are not going to be getting what they want. Indeed, Blomkamp skillfully builds the suspense and action knowing that by providing some substance to the motivation of the characters there’s something at stake when the various battles take place.
Indeed, just as it was a mistake to see “District 9” as simply a metaphor for South Africa’s apartheid regime, it would be a mistake to see “Elysium” as a movie about health care or border security. However, by making the film’s issues things that resonate in our real world instead of sheer fantasy, it gives this science fiction thriller some heft. Blomkamp is helped by a solid cast, with Damon and Foster lending their star power to their parts. We expect them to be good and they don’t disappoint. The revelation here is Copley, who was the bumbling enforcer contaminated by the aliens in “District 9.” Here he is a vicious thug and he is utterly convincing.
“Elysium” is the sort of science fiction thriller some of us have been craving all summer only to see one film after another fall short. You can go for the action and effects, but be prepared to talk about the issues it raises afterwards.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.