Elysium: Political SciFi

by Sandra Olmsted

Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, District 9, and Chappie, a comedy sci-fi in preproduction, establish him as an auteur scifi filmmaker and confirms he is attracted to the genre because of his strong political ideals, and Elysium offers Blomkamp lots of opportunities to wax poetic on contemporary world problems. The films opens with the story of two young orphans, Frey and Max who are raised by Spanish-speaking nuns, one of whom tells Max that he is destined for a special task, so there is also religious and messianic elements.

In the Los Angeles of 2154, the film’s visuals quickly establish that the city has degenerated into third world slums where people living on garbage picking, menial labor, and crime while Elysium, where the rich live above it all, rotates around the earth. The marvels of Elysium are legendary, and people pay hard earned cash for the chance to board a rickety space craft, which probably won’t out run Elysium’s defense systems, to get there. Through visuals, an emotional attachment to a crippled girl, and exciting battle scenes, Blomkamp passionately and efficiently sets up the plight of the illegal immigrants: if they aren’t shot down, and most are, all they have to do is get to a scanner and get healthy before being captured and deported. Too bad that Blomkamp can’t maintain this emotion and efficiency throughout the film.

While the overt messages about access to healthcare confirm what liberals believe, the film mediates many other hot button issues, such as immigration, the destruction of the middle class, and outsourcing jobs to other countries to avoid higher wages and anti-pollution laws. The story picks up with a grown-up Max (Matt Damon) out of prison and trying to go straight.  When he is injured by a robot cop with an overseer attitude, he reconnects with Frey (Alice Braga), who is a nurse squeaking by on a meager salary in a quasi-hospital practicing antiquated medicine.

After being poisoned with radioactivity because the boss doesn’t care about workers, Max has five days to live, unless he can get to Elysium and a medical scanner, so he goes to his revolutionary/criminal buddy Spider (Wagner Moura) in hopes of getting a spot on the next illegal trip to Elysium. Spider, a proficient hacker, offers a deal: Kidnap John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who owns the factory where Max was poisoned and steal the info in his head. In a painful and dirty operation, Max is fitted with a metal exoskeleton and becomes half robot, including an attachment drilled, literally, into his brain. Meanwhile, Carlyle and Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who runs “homeland security” for Elysium, have cooked up a little scheme of their own. When Max and his crew grab Carlyle, Delacourt sends a rogue agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), after Max  to get the computer program out of Max’s head. Soon, Kruger tracks the injured Max to the home of Frey and kidnaps her and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who has leukemia and for whom a trip to Elysium represents the final hope.

After this exciting and complicated set up, the film degenerates into an all-too-familiar cat-and-mouse chase with all the usual wild rides, near misses, explosions, gun battles, and nail-biting downloads of information. However, the excitement is undercut by the heavy-handed political statements about healthcare as a universal right and the sentimentality of the emotions evoked or intended to be evoked by the story of the illegals risking their lives for the medical care taken for granted by Elysium’s population. While the right to healthcare is obviously important to the director, and this reviewer, the film is unlikely to sway anyone from the other side of the aisle, and the more subtle messages about using the world’s poor for financial gain while not being a good corporate citizen are buried.

The acting is plausible for the scifi genre, except for Foster’s whose voice often seems out of sync, which may be because more of her dialogue was filmed in French than was desirable for the film’s commercial success. Foster’s character also seems to evoke a monstrous version of Hilary Clinton and/or Margaret Thatcher, which couple with the obvious “takeover” of Los Angeles by Spanish speakers, muddles the political messages. There are some subtitles throughout the film, but not many since the film is about the action.  For those who love action and impressive visuals, Elysium doesn’t disappoint. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures presentation, Elysium is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout and runs 109 minutes. It’s in theaters now.

More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at www.thecinemticskinny.com.

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