STARRING: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster,
Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner
2013, 109 Minutes, Directed by:
is the equivalent of a fresh rain after a season of drought. Animated offerings
aside, this summer’s science fiction films have offered us nothing but
superheroes and CGI monsters, with things like plot and character only an
afterthought. Oh, some were certainly entertaining, but what was the last
science fiction movie that made you think? Pacific
Rim? After Earth?
Oblivion? Please. The only part of the brain any of these engaged was the
part that said, "Look at the cool special effects."
writer-director Neill Blomkamp demonstrates that
District 9 (2009) was no fluke. Set in the world of 2154, Earth is an
oppressive and downtrodden place operating for the benefit of what we might call
the 1%, who are living a life of ease in the orbiting space station of the
title. This is hardly an original concept. Not only have we seen similar set ups
this year in both
Upside Down and Oblivion, but it dates back to at least to
Metropolis (1927), which also sees a worker revolt
against the elites.
Matt Damon is Max, a lowly
laborer who has done time in the past but has gone straight. When he gets a
fatal dose of radiation doing a job he was ordered to do he is told he has five
days to live. Up on Elysium they have health care that can fix him. (Indeed, the
technology is so advanced it borders on magic.) However such care is only
available to citizens of Elysium and they intend to keep it that way.
"The sort of science fiction thriller some of us have been craving all
Up on Elysium the defense chief
Delacourt (a chilling Jodie Foster) does whatever it takes to kill or expel
those who illegally try to enter her paradise, including employing the ruthless
Kruger (Sharlto Copley). When the president rebukes her she makes plans to
overthrow him and enact the security measures she deems necessary. This involves
Carlyle (William Fichtner) transporting key software in his brain from Earth to
Elysium. However Max rejoins his old outlaw pals who will get him to Elysium if
he helps them on a job. Their target is the unsuspecting Carlyle.
The plot gets a bit more
complicated with the arrival of Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga),
now a doctor with a dying daughter who is also denied access to Elysium. What
should be clear is that with all these conflicting and contrary motives, some of
these characters are not going to be getting what they want. Indeed Blomkamp
skillfully builds the suspense and action knowing that by providing some
substance to the motivation of the characters there’s something at stake when
the various battles take place.
Indeed, just as it was a
mistake to see District 9 as simply a metaphor for South Africa’s
apartheid regime, it would be a mistake to see Elysium as a movie about
health care or border security. However by making the film’s issues things that
resonate in our real world instead of sheer fantasy, it gives this science
fiction thriller some heft. Blomkamp is helped by a solid cast, with Damon and
Foster lending their star power to their parts. We expect them to be good and
they don’t disappoint. The revelation here is Copley, who was the bumbling
enforcer contaminated by the aliens in District 9. Here he is a vicious
thug and he is utterly convincing.
Elysium is the sort of
science fiction thriller some of us have been craving all summer only to see one
film after another fall short. You can go for the action and effects, but be
prepared to talk about the issues it raises afterwards.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a
veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first
novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s
Guide has just been released. He teaches film at Suffolk University and
lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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