I managed to go to the movies last night, and I picked out a first day showing of Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction epic, Elysium. I’m glad I did. In spite of having computers and iTunes and eBooks and the Internet, there are few pleasures that equal settling down to read a book, nor indulgences that rate higher than going out to a movie theatre, buying popcorn and a drink, and sharing an experience with a large screen and room packed full of people. Of course, all this is sabotaged if the movie isn’t good, but while Elysium is far from perfect, it’s smart, visually impressive and its heart is in the right place.
The story is set in 2154, a few decades after pollution, overpopulation and environmental degradation have led the 1% — or, more accurately, the 0.001% - to say “see ya!”, and build themselves a gigantic star-shaped satellite in low orbit around Earth, and popping off to their paradise in the sky. The rest of the world is left to struggle along in third-world standards.
A buffed-up Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, a young man who grew up on the streets of Los Angeles (and, yes, I was thinking of Blade Runner when I saw this. The big difference between the two movies’ settings is that Elysium’s Los Angeles is bone dry). He lived in an orphanage and developed a lifelong friendship with Frey Santiago (played by Alice Braga), an orphan girl who knows how to read. In spite of the kindly influence of the nuns, including a mother superior who believes Max is destined for great things, Freya and Max’s lives grow apart, as Max increasingly depends on theft to get by. Until, that is, he gets caught. After serving his time, Max somehow finds a job in a very badly managed factory and tries to keep his nose clean.
All the while, Elysium looks down on Earth, in every connotation of that phrase that you can imagine. It’s a pretty darn big satellite (one wonders just how much it would cost to build), and it can be seen in daylight, even though the smog. The satellite itself spends much of the movie in the sky as a gigantic middle finger to the people of Earth, going ‘Hey, look at me! Look at me! Look at how rich we are, you scummy poor people!” More than that, Max’s factory owners (represented by John Carlyle, played by William Fichtner) hail from Elysium. There’s also a Wall Street (Carlyle is constantly checking the NASDAQ numbers). Carlyle shows nothing but disdain for the people who work under him, and when Max has an industrial accident, taking a lethal dose of radiation that leaves him with just five days to live, Carlyle himself orders Max out of the factory so that he doesn’t “stain the bedding”.
I have to admit, this is a part of Elysium where I had a little trouble suspending my disbelief, though maybe I was influenced by recently reading this article on the seven deadly sins of world building. With Elysium as a giant middle finger pointed at the people of Earth, why hasn’t anybody tried shooting a missile or two at the thing? That level of disparity is going to breed incredible resentment, and that level of poverty is going to breed incredible volatility. How does Elysium control Earth? Is Elysium self-sufficient and completely independent from Earth? What would happen to Elysium if Earth entirely collapsed? How would Elysium have sufficient resources to keep going since, after all, maintaining a space station that size has got to be incredibly expensive. This leads to a cognitive dissonance, in my opinion, and a sense that the director wanted to have his cake and eat it too: the people of Elysium are portrayed as being very aloof from Earth. Showing them getting their hands dirty to keep the riff-raff in line shatters that sense of isolation that the director was hoping to achieve.
I suspect that the truth is that if we addressed all of these questions, we’d have a much longer and slower movie, and with Matt Damon at the helm, we want a bit of action. Director Neill Blomkamp (whose previous credits include the acclaimed District 9, another movie I really need to see) does add little touches, though, which suggest that the answers are there, if just a bit off camera. After all, as I said, there is a Wall Street (or, at least, a NASDAQ). And while Blomkamp bolsters his story with parallels to illegal immigrants struggling mightily to sneak across Elysium’s borders, he brilliantly simplifies the goals. The problem with Elysium is not that people want to sneak in and live there — there’s no jobs for the illegal immigrants since robotic servants do all the menial work (tick, tick, tick) — it’s that Elysium has some incredible technology that’s desperately needed here on Earth. Every house is equipped with a medical bed keyed off each Elysium citizen’s DNA-ID Card which can fix every injury and cure every illness, even if you’re at the point of death. And the people of Elysium primarily use it for recreational cosmetic surgery.
These medical beds are the reason why the people on Earth below believe that the people of Elysium have no sickness — and do not in fact die (are they immortal? Jodie Foster, who plays Elysium’s Secretary of Defence, Ms. Delacourt, gives us a hint that she’s been alive far, far longer than her appearance would indicate — so long, in fact, that she’s tired of life). So, the “illegal immigrants” in the shuttles trying to breach Elysium’s security have a far more specific goal than years of drudgery in meat factories trying to achieve the Elysium Dream: they have sick or crippled children who desperately need medical attention they can not get on Earth. Ten minutes in an Elysium medical bed can regrow lost legs. And the people of Elysium don’t want to share. Now do you feel that the people of Elysium are a bunch of (pardon my language) dicks? Now are you ready for some mayhem on the satellite itself? I know I am. And with Matt Damon’s Max left with five days to live, his old Fagan — a brilliant computer-savvy crime lord with a heart of gold (maybe) named Spider (played by Wagner Moura) — realizes that Max has nothing to lose, and would be willing to take on a mission to rob Elysium of critical data codes that could make access to the satellite’s medical beds much, much easier. Add in a return of Freya and her critically ill daughter and… well, the motivations just pile on.
My main criticism of Elysium comes with the villians of the piece, though not with the actors. Jodie Foster plays Elysium’s Secretary of Defence Delacourt with maddeningly crisp evil. Her heavy, Agent C.M. Kruger, is played by Sharlto Copley with Brian Blessed-intensity. Both are not helped by a script that makes them rather one-dimensional. Foster, I think, imbues Delacourt with little touches that suggest some depth here, but I’m still unsure what causes Kruger to go off his noodle at the end and start shooting indiscriminately — except that he was probably already halfway there. Without this depth, Kruger becomes less than interesting, except as a plot device and a noise maker, and my sense is that Copley deserved more.
Then there is the scene early in the movie where Kruger launches missiles to take out three illegal shuttles heading from Los Angeles to Elysium. He takes the call from Delacourt, and fires his shuttle-seeking missiles from Earth. At Elysium. What? Does Elysium not have orbital defences of its own? How does it protect itself from Earth again? By pointing a bunch of loaded weapons at its own face and firing at gnats that are aiming for its nose? What if Kruger misses? I bet some very rich individual might be more than a little ticked off at Delacourt at the nice new crater she’s added to his or her topiary.
But these questions aside, Elysium is still a very satisfying movie. The special effects of the satellite itself are spectacular, and Matt Damon combines his boyish looks with action-hero movies in a way that makes you want to cheer for and feel sorry for the guy. The chemistry between him and Alice Braga is at the heart of the movie. The ending may be predictable, when all things are considered, but it makes it no less satisfying. Elysium is definitely a movie that’s worth watching.