The world as we once knew it has ended. Plagued by pollution and overpopulation, mankind must learn to survive in a segregated society. The rich enjoy a life of privileged luxury while the less fortunate endure hard labor, a lack of proper medical treatment, and oppression from authority.
No, this isn’t a left-wing radical’s view of present-day America. It’s Earth in the year 2154. The brazen political commentary in Neill Blomkamp’s latest project “Elysium” (which the director vehemently denies) is receiving a mixed reaction at best, but this sci-fi thriller will please fans of the genre and intrigue anyone else looking for a truly original story.
Ex-convict Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) lives on Blomkamp’s decrepit Earth, making what little money he can as a factory worker in Los Angeles. His dreams, though, reach far above. Ever since he was a young orphan, Max has yearned to leave Earth behind and seek asylum on Elysium—an extravagant space station for the wealthy on which French is the native language, everyone attends lavish cocktail parties, and the poor, unwashed Earth-dwellers are avoided like the plague.
A factory accident exposes Max to a lethal dose of radiation, and only Elysium’s advanced medical technology can save him. With just five days to live, he tries to raise money for a trip to the space station through a smuggler’s scheme to extract valuable information from John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the CEO of the company that built it.
When Max finds a code embedded in Carlyle’s brain that can override Elysium’s operating computer, he stumbles onto an attempted coup against President Patel (Faran Tahir) that would put Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) in power. When Delacourt learns of his discovery, she orders rogue mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to dispose of Max and anyone else who has learned of the override code.
A slew of other characters and subplots, like Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), who needs to get to Elysium to cure her daughter’s leukemia, only muddle the confusing, fast-paced plot. But all in all, “Elysium” is a fascinating work of science fiction.
Near-constant action sequences take advantage of the film’s futuristic setting as much as possible, employing high-tech weapons capable of blowing people apart (a bloody display that happens one too many times). The end result may be overly dramatic – clichéd ethereal humming during intense scenes is a testament to that – but it is admittedly quite entertaining.
The cast, however, is more bizarre than amusing in its noticeable over-acting. Foster, in particular, is far too self-serious and probably should have spent more time taming her incessant scene-chewing than perfecting her truly off-putting British/French hybrid accent.
Then there is Sharlto Copley. Describing his performance as insane might actually be an understatement. His crazed appearance and utter mercilessness make him a feared villain (with his own largely unidentifiable accent). His spontaneity, especially when killing is concerned, makes him both entertaining and supremely annoying.
Fortunately, Matt Damon turns in a solid, understated performance as an unlikely but ultimately likeable hero. His relative blandness is much more of a strength than a weakness, especially when set against the overdramatic histrionics of his cast-mates.
Blomkamp’s detailed visuals are somewhat offset by his tendency to blatantly hold his audience’s hand while hitting them over the head with his political message. From the stark contrast between the Spanish-speaking slums of L.A. and the sophisticated suburbs of Elysium, to the intermittent flashbacks of Max’s childhood – when the nuns running his orphanage tell him he is destined for great things, nothing in this film is particularly subtle.
Still, Blomkamp deserves credit for making a wholly original work of science fiction that may be heavy-handed in its sermonizing but is, at its core, a very entertaining film.
*** out of five