See itWriter/director Neill Blomkamp fires up the political allegory-o-matic in Elysium, a futuristic sci-fi based in a universe where high society live on a massive Utopian wheel floating in space and plebeians reside below them, bossed around by droids on an impoverished robot-ruled earth.

Max (Matt Damon) will do anything to walk the bright green grass (way) above him, and, more urgently, to take advantage of Elysium’s self-serve healthcare system, which can cure leukemia in, oh, thirty seconds.

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Like Vincent (Ethan Hawke), the protagonist of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997) — of which Blomkamp’s louder and brassier movie shares several similarities — Max’s days are numbered, having suffered a good old fashioned burst of fatal radiation poisoning. Also like Niccol’s similarly cautious “how do you measure progress?” space drama, Elysium’s upper class expend considerable effort keeping working folk where they belong.

Blomkamp is skillful at creating big images loaded with social commentary, such as a stop the boats type moment when Jodie Foster’s malevolent Secretary of Defense orders the destruction of vessels approaching Elysium stocked with desperate human cargo.

He should be, given his rather spectacular dry run. Blomkamp’s blistering debut District 9 (2009) was awfully effective at using an aliens-among-us premise to riff on notions of class divide and entrenched racism. His follow-up is less innovative and more “Hollywood” but still lands some impressive blows.

Blomkamp got his hands on Christopher Nolan’s rumble machine, inserting now familiar death-by-Dolby robotic throat clearing noises (VVVVRRRRRRMMMMMM) to inflate already unsubtle moments. He plucks another trick from the Inception play book, breaking up climactic sequences with dreamy flashbacks characterized by outdoors locations and brighter colour palettes.

[pullquote position=”right”]There is a disconnect between Blomkamp’s snazzy production values, his cartoony script and the seriousness of Elysium’s big ideas[/pullquote] and the dramatic moments that power them. At least one of the villains (Jodie Foster) could have been stroking a cat and pulling levers to unlock trap doors in the floor. Emotionally the audience is likely to experience an off-and-on relationship with Max, and the story more broadly. The opening act, which details Max’s down in the ditches life with Dancer in the Dark-like brutality, is the strongest. But the film is genuine throughout.

Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t called 1001 Ways to Destroy Matt Damon, which would have been a more honest title. Damon gets punched, kicked, whacked and hurled around like a piece of meat. He gets shot, stabbed (twice), tasered, has a device inserted into his head and — like Vincent in Gattaca — goes on a date with a bone saw. There’s also the whole radiation poisoning thing.

Like Edmond O’Brienin in D.O.A. (1950) and Jason Statham in Crank (2006) Damon will die if he doesn’t do something about it, so most of the movie is about him trying to do something about it. Briefly Blomkamp plays with the tantalising prospect that Max’s determination to live may cause others irrevocable harm, but it’s one of several ideas ditched in favour of biff and bombast.

The conclusion finds a pretty good way to satisfy mainstream audiences without welching on an ambitious central concept, which is no easy feat. But if a character is able to signify a turning point in the story by deleting the word “illegal” on a command prompt (in the future humankind appears to have gone back to using MS-DOS) and replacing it with “legal”, something has got a bit sloppy in the screenwriting department, and it’s not the script’s only goof-up.

As in District 9, Blomkamp is able to have his cake and eat it too, wrapping meaningful allegory around scenery-detonating multiplex fodder. But this time only just.

Elysium’s Australian theatrical release date: August 15, 2013. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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