I’ve never been a huge fan of science fiction films with the exception of 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which I think still remains the epitome of the genre, but I did want to see “Elysium” because I’ve been a Jodi Foster fan ever since I saw her in “Taxi Driver” 37 years ago. Although I was disappointed that Foster’s role in the film was a bit abbreviated, the premise of “Elysium” is an intriguing one, and people who like movies with lots of loud action and plenty of gunfire will be in heaven.
The movie is set in 2154, when the Earth has been reduced to virtual rubble overpopulated by impoverished people policed by abusive robots. In sharp contrast is Elysium, a space station where the wealthy live in luxury and where illness, poverty, and war are nonexistent. The powerful Armadyne Corporation built Elysium presided over by President Patel (Faran Tahir), but the person who really calls the shots is Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Foster), and she will stop at nothing to prevent Earth denizens from immigrating to her habitat. In fact, she even hires a vicious South African mercenary named C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley) as her main enforcer. This guy would waste his grandmother without batting an eye.
In the meantime, back on Earth we meet Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con who ekes out a living by working on an assembly line in a Los Angeles droid factory. On his way to work one morning Max runs afoul of the ruthless robotic police and ends up needing medical attention, but the damage inflicted upon him by the robot is nothing compared to what is in store for him when he returns to work. But first let’s go back to Elysium.
Delacourt and President Patel really despise each other, and Delacourt convinces John Carlyle, the CEO of Armadyne, to devise a computer program that will oust Patel and install her as president. In exchange Elysium will renew its various contracts with Armadyne for the next 200 years. (Did I mention that the people on Elysium can live forever and that Delacourt really looks great for being 108 years old?)
While Delacourt is busy trying to overthrow the incumbent president, Max is working at a plant when something malfunctions, exposes him to a massive dose of radiation, and leaves him with just five days to live. The only way Max can extend his life is to get to Elysium, where he can use a Med-Pod, which instantly cures any illness or disease in the world. Now hang on to your spaceship because this is where things become complicated, and remember this is science fiction.
The only person who can help Max get to Elysium is a crook named Spider (Wagner Moura), and he agrees to do so if Max will allow himself to be rigged with various mind-stealing devices so he can purloin corporate secrets from Carlyle’s brain. Spider intends to sell the information about Armadyne for a lot of money. Max manages to attack Carlyle and steal all the information in his head, but when Delacourt learns what has happened, she is furious and orders that Max be captured and brought to her immediately. This sets in motion a series of events culminating in one of the loudest and most explosive confrontations you’ve ever seen.
Under the direction of Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”), “Elysium” offers a fascinating look at the future as well as plenty of fast-paced action. In the film’s production notes, Blomkamp explained the basic idea of the film and why it may not be as farfetched as it seems.
“The idea, in a way, is ludicrous. The idea of taking up stone, and mortar, and concrete, and swimming pools — and everything you’d need to build these mansions in a space station — is satire. It just reinforces the central idea of the film — the people of Elysium have unimaginable wealth, and they use those resources to build a separate, synthetic, almost hermetic environment for themselves. In that way, Elysium is the reverse of an alien-invasion story — it’s still about human beings trying to protect a way of life, but instead of fighting for Earth, they do it by going into space.
“When people see the wealth of Elysium back-to-back with the poverty of Earth, I think some will think that it’s more extreme than reality — and it is not. The two things exist, on Earth, right now. In Mexico City, in Johannesburg, in Rio, you have pockets of great wealth, gated communities, amidst a sea of poverty. And I think that’s where the cities of the U.S. are going to end up, too — that’s why the movie is set in Los Angeles. But that disparity can’t last. And I don’t know what we’re going to get — whether we’re going to pull ourselves forward or self-implode. Elysium is the fork in the road.”
Sporting a shaved head, some bulging muscles, and lots of tattoos, Damon is terrific in the role of Max. The part was terribly demanding physically because Max is constantly engaged in fights and gun battles. But there’s a tender side to Max too, and Damon conveys all of Max’s characteristics masterfully. In the production notes, Damon offered an interesting analysis of his character.
“Max, like a lot of people on Earth, has always aspired to get to Elysium. That was his dream. But he grew up. You get the idea that he’s been a petty criminal, but on an Earth where resources are so scarce that everybody’s hustling in some way, he’s just doing what he’s got to do to get by. He’s been beaten up by life, and now he’s resigned to his life on Earth. He doesn’t dream about Elysium anymore. But in the movie, he’s put in a position to become the only person who can change things.”
Although Foster makes the most of her part as Delacourt, it is not the kind of role into which she can really sink her dramatic teeth. Delacourt is coldly impassive about ordering the mass deaths of invading immigrants, and she wears a perpetual frown throughout the film. While Foster plays the role to the hilt, I wish she had had a larger part. In fact, even though she and Damon share top billing, they have only one very brief scene together. In the production notes Foster spoke about her character and also revealed why she was drawn to making the film.
“As the Secretary of Defense, she sees it as her job to keep immigrants out of Elysium. She sees Elysium as a utopia — what Earth could have been, but wasn’t. She’s finding herself handcuffed by a new, more liberal administration, but she’s 108 years old; she remembers when Earth was falling apart and why they created Elysium in the first place. She knows what will happen if you let everybody in — it’ll end up just like Earth. If you try to give Elysium to everybody, you’ll end up giving it to nobody.
“I love the themes of this movie. The richer have become richer, and the poor have become poorer — that extends to everything from who gets to be healthy to who gets to have children, who gets to have a family and who gets to escape the poisoned environment. The chasm has become so enormous that, in the movie, it’s literally two different worlds.”
In another key role, Copley creates a truly dastardly villain Kruger, but his brogue is so thick that it’s often difficult to understand what he’s saying, and this distracted from his part.
Overall “Elysium” is a nicely acted film with some great special effects and incredible fights. It also boasts some dazzling sets, but be forewarned it is incredibly loud, and so don’t be surprised if you leave the theater with either a headache or ringing ears or both. Nevertheless the film makes a worthy contribution to the science fiction genre, and it earns solid eight.
I dedicate this review to the memory of a former student, Joan (Weekly) Fleahman, whose untimely death last week at the age of 50 seems so incredibly unfair. Joan was a student in my classes at West Liberty, a member of The Trumpet staff, and ultimately a colleague. She was a lovely and talented woman, and I extend my deepest sympathy to her family and friends. She will be sorely missed by all those who knew her.