Matt Damon can save almost any film for me, and the perfectly competent, entirely predictable Elysium may be where "almost" kicks in. Like most summer action movies -- from Man of Steel to World War Z -- it has an intriguing premise that gets lost mid-way through in the barrage of special effects and action. Elysium was written and directed by South African-born Neill Blomkamp, who also made the much smaller, more sharply dystopian District 9, with its sci-fi allegory of apartheid. Even here his skewering social observations shine through, at least in the early scenes.
The world he creates is today's run amok. The late 21st century, as the opening on-screen text tells us, brought "disease, pollution and overpopulation." (What, no climate change?) When we settle down in 2154 Los Angeles, the place looks like dusty war-torn Iraq. Working-class guys like Max (Damon) struggle on assembly lines for peanuts and can only dream of reaching Elysium, a shining, climate-controlled space-ship where the wealthy and beautiful live, and where every disease can be cured instantly by a machine that zaps your sickly atoms back into place. Talk about a widening gap between classes.
When he's radiated nearly to death in an industrial accident, Max has to find a way to Elysium to be cured -- and because the film has a formulaic action plot, naturally he's out to save the life of a small child too. But before the easy-to-anticipate ending, the film offers some piercing and occasionally witty social commentary.
Here are the top ways Elysium's future resonates with reality today, making the film momentarily smarter than most summer action:
1. Health care. This is what happens if you don't listen to Obama, and the gap between the covered and uncovered grows. While Elysium is health-care heaven, Max's childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), coincidentally the mother of the sick little girl, is a nurse in a hospital as overcrowded and as quick to turn suffering people out of their beds as any venal HMO today.
2. Computer malfunctions. In the future they can reconstruct sick cells, but apparently they still can't make a data transfer foolproof. At a crucial moment. when someone gets a "Scrambled" error message on a screen, we know exactly how that person feels. When the ruthless cabinet minister (Jodie Foster) on Elysium blocks all communication signals on Earth, it's as if your internet connection went down and the cable company has you on hold again. (Speaking of technical failures, as the icy Minister Delacourt, Foster has a clipped, unidentified but South-African sounding accent that looks conspicuously looped in after the fact; what's that about?)
3. Phones attached to your ears. Literally attached. The wealthy wear little white rectangles behind their ears to communicate, and you can also have computer data streamed right into your brain. Beyond Bluetooth -- it's as if Google glass had the good sense to migrate to less obvious spots on your head.
4. In the future, civil service workers are robots with
automated voice menus; listen carefully because their options have changed.
When a frustrated Max offers a smart-ass answer, the robotic voice asks:
"Are you being sarcastic, and/or abusive?" That would be a very useful question today.
You can see the robotic question at :34 into this trailer: