It’s a brave new world when a director on his second film offers us some brain-food amid the candyfloss of the blockbuster season.
In a summer of remakes and reboots, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium set out to deliver something original; it’s not every day that a socialist sci-fi comes along, rich with issues that we can all instantly recognise – everything from the class divide to universal healthcare.
The South African-born director already managed to layer politics into his startling debut District 9, with its story of alien-segregation an allegory for the Apartheid regime that dogged his country for many years.
In Elysium, his scope is broader – the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in a post-crash society as seen through the eyes of Matt Damon’s car-jacking ex-con Max Da Costa.
Set in 2154, the rich have gone off-planet, living in the pristine titular space station, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrabble around in the dust and disease-ridden decay, as law-enforcing robots buzz around, dishing out parole increases at will.
Up above, with hi-tech Med-Bays that can fix any ailment, illness has been all but eradicated. Meanwhile, those who try and make it into space to gatecrash the Elysium party get shot down – instantly.
These two distinct worlds collide when Max’s blue-collar job at a weapons plant goes disastrously wrong and a killer dose of radiation leaves him at death’s door.
“In five days time, you will die,” he’s told, by a robot doc rather lacking in bedside manner. With the clock ticking, Max is forced into “one last job” for smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura) so he can earn his passage to the space station and steal the medical care he so desperately needs.
The mission? Hijack a computer program that can hack into the Elysium mainframe that’s currently stored in the brain of William Fichtner’s CEO, a lapdog to Jodie Foster’s scheming Elysium politician Jessica Delacourt, a coup-planning Secretary of Defence so cold-hearted she makes Donald Rumsfeld look like Gandhi.
Forget the subtle brain-dipping of Inception – this data heist is as crude and rude as they come.
It’s here where Blomkamp’s visual masterstroke comes in – as the shaven-headed Max, sick from radiation, is fitted out with an exoskeleton, grafting a metal support-structure into his back and arms. Looking like a renegade RoboCop, it’s a frightening, fascinating image of the future – a fusion of man and machine – and central to the hi-meets-lo-tech vision.
For all this though, there was a feeling when Elysium came out that it was a disappointment. The box office figures – a global tally of $284m – put it outside 2013’s top 20, beaten by, er, The Smurfs 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me.
The reviews were middling too, many concentrating on the fact that after District 9, Elysium fell short – and there’s truth to that.
At times, Blomkamp’s film is as flawed as the world it depicts. For starters, Jodie Foster offers an unusually starchy panto-turn, the suited-and-booted villainess of the piece.
It’s just as well she can’t grow a moustache, because she’d be twiddling it. That the role of Delacourt was originally written for a man is one thing; but there’s little dimension to the edges of the character.
Then there’s the script – a sprawling mess of a document that tries to cram as much as humanly possible into its 109 minutes. Moments nag you. Why are the houses on Elysium always empty? Why is this super healthcare so scarce? Is it simply the rich keeping the poor at arm’s length? It’s not very clear. Characters arcs aren’t always credible, either, notably Spider’s late-on turn towards revolution.
While he sometimes paints in strokes so broad you’d think he was using a mop, signposting his politics in 48pt type, Blomkamp is a brilliant world-builder.
Elysium is full of detail – right down to the triangular-shaped Bulgari watch on Delacourt’s wrist. Credit him also for not toning down the violence – with bodies torn to smithereens, faces ripped by grenades. Fun for all the family? Hardly.
Then there’s the enormous presence of Sharlto Copley. Blomkamp’s District 9 star returns as Delacourt’s unhinged mercenary-for-hire Kruger, who initially sets out to intercept Max on his mission. Brandishing a sword, with the pupils of his eyes like black holes, this is one mean mother, operating by a cocked-hat code of conduct.
“I don’t believe in committing violent acts in front of kids,” he says, covering up the eyes of an leukaemia-suffering girl as he beats her mother (Alice Braga).
If there’s a big problem with Elysium, it’s that you can see the ending coming, with its themes of sacrifice and rebirth, from light years away.
A pity, because in an age of robots pounding lizards, Blomkamp’s attempt at crafting an intelligent sci-fi – one where politics and action mesh together like skin and metal – is to be commended. If only he’d given that script another pass.
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