After the remarkable District 9, South African-born writer/director Neill Blomkamp got $100 million to make this big-stars, red-carpet, futuristic blockbuster, which is based on the same theme of ‘haves and have-nots’. It works just as well as his less celebrated precursor – but it is despite rather than because of the budget boost.
Set at the end of this century, our planet has become so polluted and over-populated that a tiny percentage of people have fled to Elysium, a satellite colony of mansions, tranquillity and plenty, and where citizenship is an exclusive right. Aldous Huxley’s ‘epsilons’ are left to fend for themselves on Earth, employed in harshly overseen manufacturing jobs to support the lifestyle of the Elysians. Everybody wants to escape to that clean, healthy world of privilege, and the analogy with Australia’s asylum seeker ‘problem’ is an immediate and glaring indictment of our nation’s moral bankruptcy – the moment when grey-suited Jodie Foster dispatches missiles to eradicate a shipload of desperate refugees should shame us all in the Lucky Country.
Design, soundscape and effects are superb, but after the engrossing setup something goes awry. In an intricately plotted scenario, Max (Matt Damon), an Earth dweller, is irradiated, left with five days to live and a computer program embedded in his skull that might destroy Elysium’s defence systems. There is a conspiracy at large, as well as a beautiful young woman with a cute sick kid who can only be cured on Elysium, but the film is dumbed down by giving itself over to adventure mode. And what is it about fights anyway? Would anybody think that when Max, the avenging angel with the completion of his heroic mission in sight, starts to slug it out with the bad guy that it won’t be Max who triumphs?
The comforting conventions of storytelling are all well and good, but why must these scenes go on for so long? Though losing its way, it comes home on an uplifting wave of hopeful morality and is almost a great movie.