Neill Blomkamp, he of DISTRICT 9 fame, should not be expected to make a straight-up thriller without also making it a damning critique of societyís ills. Nor would we want him to. His is an eye that can pick out the details that illuminate the whole without going all dialectic on us. Instead, he uses a plot that is human in scope to tell a story that is universal in nature. His is also a style that provides just enough information to the audience to make the proceedings comprehensible without going into expository overkill.
Thus do we learn that the year is 2154, that the Earth has collapsed both economically and ecologically. The wealthy, instead of retreating to gated communities, have instead retreated to the eponymous orbiting space station, establishing themselves, and only themselves, as citizens in a place where the parks are green, the air is clean, and population has the best in medical care in posh homes that dot the endless suburbs. This satellite nation has become the new first world, leaving the rest of teeming humanity earthbound in what can only be described as a sub-third world. They are also subjugated in a capitalist system run amok, where the bedding on a cot is more important than the person dying upon it.
As a focal point, Blomkamp gives us Max (Matt Damon), a basically decent kid who has dreamed to buying a ticket to Elysium since his days in a nun-run orphanage in Los Angeles. That dream includes Frey (Alice Braga), the fellow orphan who taught him to read. Years later, and all grown up, they have drifted apart, when she left the old neighborhood, and he was sent to prison for felony auto theft. Paroled, Maxís attempts to go straight are hampered by the heckling of his friends, and the checkpoints that he must pass on his way to work, where a poor choice of response to a robot guard earns him a broken arm, and an unexpected reunion with Frey. A bad day at work, one that gives Max five days to live, further entangles the former sweethearts, forces Max to turn to his old carjacking pal Julio (Diego Luna), and embroils them all in a bold plan concocted by Spider (Wagner Moura), a tech wizard, smuggler of undocumented people to Elysium, and a fine example of the another dark side of capitalism.
Blomkamp makes his film more about the economic class system and its oppression of client states than about race. A key plot point involves the health care systems. Maxís broken arm gets a cast after a lengthy wait in an overcrowded emergency room; a little girl who makes it to Elysium is re-atomized by a home appliance that is standard issue in every Elysium home. It is, however, worthy of note that the people of Earth, Damon excluded, tend to be Hispanic. Further worthy of note is that while the relatively moderate President of Elysium, a man who is in favor of the class segregation, is a person of color, Jodie Foster, as the head of Homeland Security and charged with keeping Elysium pure, is an Aryan ice queen who takes his views to the logical extreme. There is also the trenchant, and by no means coincidental, scene in which, after deliberately killing refugees in cold blood, the rhetoric she invokes about keeping citizens safe sounds startlingly familiar. And here the film is at its most blatantly political, as it dances between two political extremes, fascism above, and anarchy below, wonderfully mirrored in the gritty energy of the earth, and the sterile order of Elysium. It is for Max to, symbolically, find the middle ground, the which he does by employing the tactics of both, but for the greater good, a slippery slope to be sure.
Yet for all the metaphors and symbolism, ELYSIUM is also a first-rate thriller, with a serial human-rights violator (Sharlto Copely doing a 180 from his schlub in DISTRICT NINE) who is as dangerous and almost as unstoppable as the evil Terminator, and a corporate weenie (William Fitchner) as smug as Gordon Gecko and as slimy as a salamander. The pacing is fast, even in the more sentimental moments, and the action is fierce and rife with nifty gadgets all fueling a story that furnishes piquant twists to its formula of noir-ish heroes and nihilistic villains. It would be a mistake to underestimate Damonís contribution to this. A credible action star, he also has that innate goodness and inner strength that makes Maxís tearing off of a robotís head in a battle-fueled frenzy, or the willingness to make the system work when itís stacked against him both seem noble. As does his eventual epiphany that playing by the rules is a foolís mission.
ELYSIUM works on many levels. Fans of action films will be rewarded, as will the political junkies looking for a fix. The curious way that absolute power and absolute powerlessness lead to disconcertingly similar behavior is something that all will find suitably provocative.