Elysium, Neil Blomkamp’s follow up to his critically and commercially successful 2009 debut, District 9, is that rare Hollywood beast – an epic, action-packed blockbuster with the intelligence and heart-and-soul of an indie darling.
Set in 2154 on an Earth so ravaged by over population, resource depletion and societal breakdown that wildlife lives on only in children’s picture books and the urban landscape is nothing but festering shantytowns, it depicts a world that has long since fallen into the abyss, crashing through into the hell that lies below where it remains.
It is a living, breathing nightmare with no real means of escape.
Unless, of course, you are obscenely wealthy and have the money and connections to seek residence in the spinning wheel-like sanctuary of Elysium where disease is unknown – cancer for instance can be cured in a matter of minutes between dips in the pool and that night’s cocktail party – and the lawns, and indeed life itself, are carefully manicured.
The razor-sharp demarcation between the haves and the havenots is so stark in fact that you can’t help but wince at the suffering on the blighted planet below where poverty, suffering and disease are so rampant that people are willing to risk their lives with the futuristic equivalent of people smugglers to reach the heavenly, almost mythical delights of Elysium.
Naturally, none of them make it sadly with their ramshackle shuttlecraft blown out of the sky before they even reach the spinning habit, a hard-as-nails policy that has its thunderous echoes in the current debate throughout the rich developed nations about how to handle a supposed “flood” of refugees.
Blonkamp is clearly trying to make an important point, but he manages to do so in a way that avoids hammer-on-the-head preachiness for simple depictions of a world that has lost any sense of morality and humanity.
And therein lies the genius.
When we see young Max (Maxwell Perry Cotton; played as an adult by Matt Damon) and Frey (Valentina Giron; played as an adult by Alice Braga) growing up under the loving care of the nuns at their Los Angeles orphanage, Elysium is visible as a glowing jewel in the sky, an aspirational destination that Max, despite the odds heaped against him, is determined to reach.
By adulthood alas that dream is long faded in a world of crowded, chronically under-resourced hospitals and a heartless judicial system staffed by algorithm-driven robots, with the only thing left of his childhood naivety the locket containing a glowing picture of Earth from space that the nun gave him as a boy.
Max keeps it around his neck, not so much as proof he will one day reach the rarefied climes of Elysium but simply I suspect as a fragile thread to a time when reaching Elysium seemed like the sanest, most sensible life goal of all.
All that changes when Max, a reformed criminal gone straight who spends his days mindlessly assembling robots in a factory run by Aramdyne’s heartless owner and Elysium resident John Carlyle (William Fichtner), is irradiated in an industrial accident and given only five days to live in a world without the life-saving medical are of Elysium.
Refusing to bow down to this death sentence, Max, with the assistance of his old criminal connections and a physically-invasive exosuit that grants him the sort of physical prowess his body no longer possesses, make one last lunge at the brass ring, throwing everything he has got into making it to Elysium.
In the process he sets off a revolution unwittingly put in train by arrogant, high ranking government minister Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who despatchs psychopathic goods headed by cold blooded South African mercenary Kruger (Blonkamp’s childhood friend and collaborator Sharlto Copley) to stop him achieving his goal, which comes to include helping Frey get medical assistance for her leukemia-blighted daughter Matilda.
It is a cautionary story of society gone bad writ large but Blonkamp allows the world he has created, in all its soul-stirring, troubling glory, the flawed characters that inhabit it and the unstoppable domino actions they set in motion, to do the talking for him.
It is the cinematic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too and it works beautifully, giving the director the chance to make a much needed social statement without frightening off audiences who may recoil from a heavy-handed didactic tale.
While the film does have its missteps – the fight scene between Max and Kruger in the industrial heart of Elysium goes on far too long and veers a little too much into comic book buffoonry, and Foster’s Delacourt is so Bond villain-ish that her menace as the merciless enforcer of the status quo is soon blunted – it nevertheless stands head and shoulders above many of the other blockbusters clogging the cinemas at this time of year.
It is a timely reminder not just of humanity’s endless ability to be both kind and cruel to itself, and the steps we must take to ameliorate the latter, but that cinema’s depiction of this duality does not have resort to crayon-bold crude storytelling to make its point.
Elysium then is both entertainer and instructor, a vivid old-fashioned morality tale wrapped in the skin of a bright, modern, look-at-me, look-at-me! blockbuster and as satisfying a piece of movie making as you’re ever likely to see this year.