If you prefer a side order of dystopian grime with your summer sci-fi shoot-em-ups you’re not going to do much better than Elysium, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, whose previous film District 9 was a rare and successful blend of satire, body horror and military hardware that also managed to comment insightfully on the plight of the disenfranchised in South Africa. His new one’s not quite as distinctive – with the increased budget a Hollywood studio brings comes an obligation not to stray too far from the standard action movie template – but to his credit he still manages to get over the bones of a Marxist message about elitism in a piece of work that’s significantly earthier, punchier and (hooray!) shorter than your average “things explode” blockbuster.
Elysium extrapolates the accelerating inequalities of today’s society into a future where the Earth is so over-populated and under-resourced that the richest 1% have physically re-located to a fabulously opulent orbiting space station where their every need is attended to by robots and they can devote their attentions to keeping the great unwashed beneath them in their place. It’s not exactly a subtle allegory but the top-notch rendering of both the luscious environment on the wheel-shaped satellite (all verdant lawns, villas and swimming pools spread over the inner surface of the wheel and depicted on screen in shots that play clear tribute to 2001 A Space Odyssey) and the horrendous slums that comprise the future Los Angeles help distract one’s attention from the well-worn premise. Our identification figure is Matt Damon’s Max, a reformed car thief who’s content to toil away in a demeaning manual labour job until an accident at work compels him to find a way to get to Elysium by any means necessary. The trials and indignities he suffers in pursuit of this end leave you wincing as he’s opposed both by the callous administrators above (Jodie Foster is really nailing the Ice Queen thing these days) and some highly unsavoury mercenaries below.
That Blomkamp is clearly fascinated by guns and vehicles and bio-technology is not that unusual in itself but his skill in making the hardware on the screen feel convincingly practical and worn in is definitely notable, as is his unflinching dedication to showing the sometimes gruesome bonding of man and machine. At one point Damon’s character is required to wear a pretty inelegant metal exo-skeleton and the sound of the bolts being screwed into his body is so effective that gory special effects aren’t needed. Which is not to say they’re not deployed with gusto elsewhere – it’s never dwelt on, but when people get shot in this movie it’s with particularly high impact bullets and they tend to end up in several pieces. This David Cronenberg-like emphasis on the abuse of the human form marries well with an underlying strain of black humour and makes Elysium worth watching despite its by-the-numbers plot and surfeit of gun battles. This is no classic, but it sure delivers on its promise of spectacle and action and gets extra respect for not extending its climactic scenes beyond the point of endurance (see pretty much every superhero movie made in the last twenty years).