By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 1, 2013 at 3:30PM
The year is 2154, and while the future may include ships that reach supersonic speeds in fifteen seconds, and advanced weaponry and technology that now interacts directly with the human body, the divide between the haves and have nots has never been greater. Los Angeles has essentially become one large barrio, a dirty, garbage-filled, decaying city that is a bleak portrait of what could happen if the current and growing prison industrial complex expands at a prodigious rate. Crime is so high that lawbreakers and potential lawbreakers are patrolled and monitored by ruthlessly efficient robots walking the beat, while those who are charged are processed in such volume that it might as well be the DMV. And one of those put through the system is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con on parole, trying to go straight after a checkered past. And these are the building blocks of an expansive world created by Neill Blomkamp in "Elysium," a brainy sci-fi effort that doesn't skimp on its blockbuster requirements, and delivers one of the most satisfying films of the summer.
With charges of robbery, assault and resisting arrest in his history, Max is nearly a veteran of the criminal lifestyle, carrying a cynicism that expresses itself as sarcasm in the face of authority. It's an attitude that winds up getting his parole extended after an encounter with some humorless cop droids, and Max's anger at the situation quickly dissipates into a grudging acceptance. He holds down a factory floor job at Armadyne, a defense company looking to renew their contract with Elysium, the space station orbiting the planet that houses the wealthy and elite, who have escaped the smog-choked, filthy atmosphere of Earth. Up above, citizens live with a pristine atmosphere, in gated community splendour, and more crucially, have access to advanced medical care that can cure any ailment—including life-threatening diseases—with no more than a high tech body scan. But of course, that luxury is protected at all costs...
The story gets kicked into motion when Max gets accidentally blasted with a lethal dose of radiation on the job, with Armadyne's medical robot coldly informing him that he has five days to live. While Max may have been trying to do good up until now, that all goes out the window, and with literally a few dozen hours left to live, he tracks down Spider (Wagner Moura), an underworld kingpin dabbling in almost anything you can imagine, who he used to work for. One of Spider's revenue streams comes from organizing flights for illegal immigrants to Elysium, and Max wants on the next departure so he can find his way to a medical bed to heal his suddenly dying body. But he'll have to do one last job first, and it's one that will see him cross paths with John Carlyle, an executive at Armadyne (William Fichtner); Secretary Rhodes, the ruthless head of defense on Elysium (Jodie Foster); and Kruger, a sadistic off-the-books Blackwater-esque special ops agent (Sharlto Copley). And in the mix as well is Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max's, who has a daughter dying of leukemia.
And to say any more would be to spoil some of the fun, but one of the most refreshing aspects of "Elysium" is that Max is more John McClane than John McClane (especially now). While the film obviously dabbles in themes concerning the divide between the 99% and 1%, Max has no ambitions to be a hero for Earth, or even for his friends who could benefit from him breaching Elysium. His foremost concern is understandably selfish and simple: he wants to live. After he's cured, he'll worry about the rest. And Blomkamp doubles down on the stakes Max faces. While Spider outfits Max with a robotic exo-skeleton to give him droid-like strength to help him face any obstacles that come across his path, the risks go far beyond his own body failing him. Rhodes and Kruger are two peas in a brutal pod—with their methods often getting them in trouble with their superiors—refusing to blink when it comes to eliminating innocents who stand in the way of their ends, which as the film goes on, involve some big rewards should they succeed in their goals. And Max is hardly indestructible, even with his new cyborg frame. He's used to jacking cars and goods, but wielding weapons and facing foes who kill as their day job finds him often outmatched and for much of the picture he's barely hanging on by the skin of his teeth. And especially in a summer where major heroes (Wolverine, Superman, everyone in "Pacific Rim") never seemed in doubt, Max's palpable and real everyman vulnerability adds a nice dimension to the proceedings.
Visually, the film is a stunner. Just as he did in "District 9," Blomkamp's imaginative vision is grounded as much as possible in reality, so his take on what the world is like in just over 100 years, is relatable and believable. Both the scarred Los Angeles vistas and the pristine environs of Elysium are beautifully rendered, alternately gritty and coolly slick. But perhaps more crucial are the action sequences, played out almost entirely in broad, bright daylight and executed near perfectly, offering an antidote to every murky, dark, 3D CGI-fest we've seen this year. Blomkamp doesn't hide his actors or gum up scenes with lots of digital effects; the set pieces here have clearly been well thought-out, choreographed and staged and you can actually see what's happening, which makes them all the more thrilling. His blend of digital effects with practical locations and props is pretty much seamless, and "Elysium" offers a strong argument that an immersive experience doesn't need to be beholden to 3D and layers upon layers upon layers of VFX. Even though Blomkamp has a much bigger budget to play with here than he did on "District 9," he still uses those resources judiciously and to greater effect than helmers given oodles of cash and FX teams at their beck and call.
Of course, one can't talk about "Elysium" without delving into the underlying idea of the picture, which one review has already knee-jerkingly called "openly socialist." To view "Elysium" simply as a sci-fi movie masking opinions about policy is to miss the point. Blomkamp's film is more about humanity than any partisan politics, and it's that quality that marks the best films that make seemingly hot-button issues a centerpiece of the ideals they wish to explore. Blomkamp's arguments for healthcare for all and a more humane approach to immigration and poverty is less rooted in liberal politics than in the simple idea of watching out for your fellow man. And, for the most part, Blomkamp gets this across through narrative rather than exposition, and it hardly hectors these points home.
And yet for all the accomplished direction, fine performances from the entire cast (though the villains do veer toward one-dimensionality) and the successful landing of a very ambitious story, Blomkamp stumbles in the basic structural work of the screenplay. Most glaringly, the film is saddled by some rather corny flashback sequences that establish a mostly marginal backstory for Max that tries to lend his journey an epic weight. These scenes, in which we learn of his orphan background, and witness some prophetic advice from a nun, are not just poorly written (the dialogue is almost laughably amateur and on-the-nose), they actually undercut the impact of Max's arc by overplaying its hand. It's one of the few instance where Blomkamp stumbles in the film, but it's also the most clunky and clumsy misstep. And while the film trades in some minor contrivances and conveniences for the sake of the plot, they aren't so egregious that they can't be easily forgiven. (Though, the film's lack of acknowledgement of what's happening on the rest of the planet—Japan or China or Russia aren't able to build space stations?—becomes a question that looms the longer the movie goes on.)
With "Elysium," Blomkamp has made good on the promise of "District 9" and proven that working on a bigger canvas doesn't mean compromising on smarts or aspirations to deliver tentpole-sized stories with a thoughtful backbone. And really, it's those qualities that set "Elysium" apart from the slog of sequels, spinoffs, remakes and superhero movies. It has the audacity (at least in Hollywood terms) of aiming for something original both in concept and design, and that Blomkamp's nails it in a fashion as entertaining, thrilling and memorable as this is all the more reason you need to see it. [B+]