Saturday, August 10, 2013
The attempt to make an action movie about the need for universal health care has resulted in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, a sincere but undercooked new film that falls short as the political allegory it wants to be. In the year 2154 the city of Los Angeles is a dirty, chaotic blast zone where most basic services are performed by robots and citizens like Max (Matt Damon) can only hope to scrape by day-to-day. Max is an ex-con now working a menial straight job for a defense contractor, and his life’s goal is to reach an orbiting space habitat called Elysium where those who can afford to live a perfect life. The central attractions of Elysium are the computers that can cure any disease and that are available only to Elysium residents. Those who attempt to access Elysium illegally in order to receive care are either jailed or shot down on the order of Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the habitat’s neocon Defense Minister. After a workplace accident gives Max only days to live, Elysium becomes the story of his attempt to use information as leverage that will allow him to buy his way on to the habitat and into a medical bay. There’s a well-staged, close-in shootout early on that defines the movie’s visual aesthetic, which relies heavily on flying and crunching metal. Max unknowingly interferes with Delacourt’s plan to take over Elysium; enter Kruger (Sharlto Copely, entertaining as a kind of psychotic samurai), Delacourt’s personal mercenary and a man with political aspirations of his own.
We don’t learn much about life on Elysium besides the existence of the medical bays, the population appears to mostly white and the architecture is drawn heavily from back issues of Town and Country. For all her ambition Delacourt seems to be the only person who realizes how tenuous the situation is for her and the rest of Elysium’s population. (Putting all the wealth and power in one place makes about as much sense as headquartering the U.S. government in the Space Needle.) But since society can’t get any more top heavy, what’s her endgame? The same question applies for Max; it’s hard to imagine him getting off Elysium alive once he gets there. The beating heart of Elysium lies in Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who need a ticket to Elysium in order for Matilda’s leukemia to be healed. Frey and Matilda are what the world might look like if everyone were a citizen of Elysium, but for that even to become a possibility we have to watch a lot of explosions. Matt Damon is as locked into the movie’s conception of class warfare as he is to the exoskeleton suit he’s attached to in order to make it to Elysium. (Exoskeleton suits: very big in the future.) Damon’s presence is as welcome as ever, but Elysium doesn’t have enough of a center. I wish Blomkamp had been able to imagine not just a cure for Max, but a different life.