Elysium has been called “Occupy Wall Street in space” and “a wide-screen advertisement for the virtues of universal healthcare”. Its director Neill Blomkamp has even been accused of “sci-fi socialism”.
The film also topped the US box office charts at the height of the summer blockbuster season.
In his follow-up to the acclaimed District 9, Blomkamp has proved that it’s possible to make a serious point whilst also using big budget special effects.
The set-up is simple and very effective. By the 22nd century, class divisions have widened to the point where the rich live in orbit while the poor are stuck on a crowded, wrecked earth.
The film is named after the gated paradise of the wealthy. It’s the kind of giant rotating ring that’s long been a staple of science fiction but has never been so sumptuously realised on screen.
Elysium dwellers are loathe to let the people of the world of slums below so much as breathe on them.
The injustice is shown starkly through the eyes of ex-con Max (Matt Damon), pushed around by a bureaucratic robot parole officer and a bullying factory boss.
Max suffers an industrial accident that leaves him with five days to live. A robot medic coldly informs him that radiation pills can keep him working at peak efficiency until he dies.
The only facilities that could actually save him are in Elysium—but the refugees who try to migrate there are blasted out of the sky by the rocket-load.
So Max and his ruthless gangster pals are forced to broaden their objectives into a revolutionary struggle to open up the borders.
While some of the effects sequences are a bit silly, the issues are not. As Blomkamp says, “it’s not really the future I’m talking about… this is now. The divide between rich and poor is getting more and more extreme.”
He’s particularly interested in the developing countries from which he recruited most of the cast.
Real world gated communities, trying to recreate an imagined middle America, exist alongside some of the world’s poorest slums. These are just as absurd as Elysium’s space-bound version.
What lets Elysium down is not its vision of the future, but its storytelling.
It falls frustratingly far short of the emotional punch that Blomkamp effectively delivered in District 9.
The plot—relying on a series of coincidences and an ill-explained coup attempt—gets pushed into the background by a relentless chain of violent set-pieces.
And a strong cast that certainly knows how to act is wasted on cardboard characters and the flimsiest of action tropes.
But in a summer of racist vans and immigrant-bashing politicians, Elysium’s flaws are worth forgiving.
After all, where else can you get the thrill of seeing the hero in the robot suit turn his guns on the injustices that really blight our world?