Neill Blomkamp’s previous feature, District 9, was one of the best science fiction films of recent years, so his follow-up project Elysium was always going to be an exciting prospect. However, considering that the summer of 2013 has largely been dominated by mega-budgeted disappointments, there is even more pressure for it to deliver on its considerable potential. Well, good news! It’s probably not going to go down as a classic of the genre, but in a summer like this one it’s a shining diamond in a sea of mediocrity.
It’s 2154, and Earth is a polluted, overpopulated slum. Those wealthy enough have moved to the orbital habitat Elysium, where everyone lives in ease and comfort and all diseases can be cured effortlessly. Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-con trying to go straight, working in a factory back on Earth. While trying to fix a door jam, he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, and becomes determined to break into Elysium to cure it. However, the station’s Secretary of Defence (Jodie Foster) is determined to keep all Earth citizens away from the habitat, and sends her agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down.
As a vision of a plausible future, Elysium is a spectacular success. Blomkamp has a real gift for imagining advanced technology and weapons, which we glimpsed in District 9, but it’s on full display here given that it’s human civilization and technology that’s advanced this time. The tech is exotic enough to remain in the realms of fiction, but it’s not that much of an extrapolation from current levels (Elysium itself aside), which makes for a very believable world. Earth of 2154 feels real, grungy and lived-in, taking the used future trope to its logical extreme; Los Angeles in the film basically looks like a city-sized version of District 9.
The contrast between Earth and Elysium is extreme, with the latter the polar opposite of the slum that is LA, and a wonderful creation in its own right, based on a theoretical NASA design for a space habitat. The idea of a torus-shaped habitat with the inhabitants living on the inner rim is not exactly original “ they’re prominent in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, the Halo video games and, of course, Larry Niven’s original Ringworld “ but one has never been realised on the big screen before, and it’s clear to see here why ringworlds have been such an enduring science fiction idea. Elysium itself is, simply, gorgeous, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that conceptual designs for Blomkamp’s unproduced Halo film were recycled into this one.
Still, all this wonderful tech isn’t worth much if it doesn’t have strong characters and a story to back it up, something Pacific Rim failed to realise. And fortunately, Damon makes for a very engaging protagonist; while it’s odd that he shows very few physical symptoms of radiation poisoning, he’s thoroughly convincing as a man with five days to live, determined to survive at any cost. His arc is not quite as compelling as Wikus’ from District 9, given that he’s a basically good man at the beginning and a basically good man at the end, but Damon is a very good actor and his gradual transition to reluctant saviour is still interesting to watch. As with District 9, though, it’s Copley who steals the show here: in another actor’s hands Kruger could easily have been dull, given that he has no character or motivation beyond being an utterly amoral bastard, but Copley is so charismatic and entertaining that you almost end up rooting for him.
And it’s in the action, where all the marvellous future technology and the characters collide, that Elysium really shines. Fight scenes mean much more if you can engage with the characters involved (again, looking at you, Pacific Rim), and Elysium certainly lives up to its predecessor in terms of action. Early in the film Max is fitted with a powered exoskeleton to overcome the weakness brought on by radiation poisoning, and his newfound superhuman strength lends itself to some great fights; the final showdown with a similarly-outfitted Kruger stands as one of the year’s best, a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat affair which does a grand job of highlighting the destructive potential of the futuristic guns that Blomkamp has created. Much of what makes the action so exciting is that it involves real people on real sets rather than all being done in a computer, and while there is quite a lot of CGI, it’s nice that Blomkamp opted to keep it grounded in reality for the most part. It’s also good to see that the splatter film influence of Peter Jackson hasn’t diminished: some may think the gore is excessive, but watching the bad guys get reduced to the consistency of chunky salsa is every bit as entertaining as it was in District 9, even if there’s nothing quite as cool as the lightning gun this time around.
In the end, it’s gratifying to know that, in a blockbuster landscape dominated by shallow spectacle, there are still people trying to make proper science fiction. There’s so much depth and character to Blomkamp’s grungy, near-future fiction, and while the Occupy movement allegory may not be subtle, at least he’s trying to hold up a mirror to real-world issues, which is what great science fiction is supposed to do. This Third World Earth features hugely unsafe workplaces, human interaction replaced by robots, and hospitals which you can only get into if you have enough money; not so different from our own world, then. Still, for what it’s worth, Elysium doesn’t smack you in the face with its politics quite as badly as District 9 did. In short, if you like science fiction you won’t want to miss Elysium.