Sci-Fi Movie Review: Elysium

[Elysium. Released August 9, 2013. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Writers: Neill Blomkamp. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains spoilers.]

What to make of a shoot-em-up action science fiction movie with a MacGuffin of health care? I’m deliberately using Hitchcock’s term (MacGuffin: a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivation often with little or no narrative development as to why it’s important). Imagine, a plot driven by the need for medical attention in the age of Obamacare (in the U.S. anyway). A MacGuffin captures the notion that Elysium is going to upset some people with its obvious political sentiment and at times kack-handed plotting.

The story, as well as the direction, is by Neill Blomkamp who made District 9, a well-reviewed and popular sci-fi movie about a form of apartheid for aliens (Blomkamp is South African). Elysium carries similar sensibilities in another direction, with a budget of literally a different magnitude ($110 million) and marquee actors Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The money, when spent on scenery and special effects wasn’t wasted.

Elysium, besides the MacGuffin of health care, is about income inequality. Really. It is as graphic a representation as one is likely to see. The images are striking: Earth in 2154, as the introduction puts it, “…was diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated.” The teeming masses, mostly roiling, toiling and filthy proletarians live in massive cities of utter squalor, with crime and corruption the norm (and BTW, lousy health care). We’ve seen these dystopian scenes before, but Blomkamp and his creative people have filled an unusually epic canvas with endless miles of slum.

In stark contrast, way up there in the sky is the gleaming wheel of the gigantic space habitat known as “Elysium.” That’s where the 1% (or maybe, like it really is today, the 0.01%) live in park-like, mansion-filled, lap-of-luxury splendor. It’s the ultimate gated community. They have a bad attitude about the rest of humanity and only go slumming (Earthside) when they must conduct some business among their corporate empires. The wretchedness of living on Earth compared the sterile and healthy Elysium (lots of miraculous medical equipment the proles can’t access) couldn’t be more visually obvious. The proles on Earth look up to Elysium, literally. They would like to exist there, but hate that they can’t.

You might think there would be a lot of rioting, or at least union organization, but no – Earth security (police, military) is almost entirely run by intelligent “droids” (androids, robots, drones), and one gets the impression they’re efficient (brutal) and perhaps even-handed. Of course, the droids get their orders from the human government on Elysium.

The hero of the story, ex-con but good-guy Max, played by Matt Damon of the shaved head, has a tenuous job in droid manufacturing. He’s shaky with his line boss, so shaky in fact, that the line boss deliberately gets him exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Max thereafter has five days to live, and as it turns out, save the world, a very convenient plot condition.

Sick with radiation poisoning, Max seeks medical attention. (Medical care, such as it is, is gruesome, worse even than an army field hospital.) There he meets up again with his childhood sweetheart, Frey (played by Brazilian actor Alice Braga). She is, of course, a nurse. While she agrees to help Max, she has problems of her own – her adorable daughter is dying of leukemia. Of course, there’s a curing treatment on Elysium but….

I think you can see the good-guys side of the plot set-up. The bad-guys-and-gals side is less nuanced. Although Jodie Foster can play snooty-snide extremely well (Viz, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), in this movie the role of Defense Secretary Delacourt is caricature. About 99% percent of the movie, she’s the heavy – callous, bigoted, conservative and self-serving head of security for Elysium who sets most of the “bad things that happen” into motion. This includes unleashing another caricature, Kruger (Sharlto Copely), the violent baddy of a secret-service field operative who goes bonkers. He eventually winds up sticking a shard of broken mirror in Delacourt’s neck, and she dies gurgling but sort of nobly (refusing medical care, if you can believe that).

There’s no need to outline more plot, especially since it mostly frames the set-piece battles. Director Blomkamp is good at CGI battles; most of the time you can tell what’s happening, although his fondness for explosively disintegrating human bodies may seem overworked. As you could easily predict, the hero and heroine wind up on Elysium, doing noisy combat with the evil Secretary of Defense and degenerate Kruger. After much tribulation and random mayhem, they manage to get Frey’s little girl into a household medical device (like a MRI scanner), that cures her completely of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in about 35 seconds, including post-op hugs and kisses. The ultimate ending of the movie, which many will find perfunctory and sappy, is that decent (as in modern and miraculous) health care is dispatched from a presumably reforming Elysium down to Earth. What struck me was the symbolic imagery of four medical space ships we see descend into the slums, as if the resources of Elysium could cure all the (literal) ills of Earth with a population of, say, 50 billion people. It seems like an all too obvious bandaid for a mortally ill society, and a storyteller afraid or unable to put his finger on the real problems.

In two phrases, Elysium is gritty in look and story, while slick in production values. The two don’t quite cancel each other out. That makes it a worthy popcorn movie for a Friday night’s settee, especially if you like lots of well-meaning action and bloodshed.

Science Spoilers
The science in the movie is both extremely low tech (on Earth), and scintillatingly high-tech (on Elysium). Since the movie takes place about 150 years into the future, it’s well beyond the limit of what I call “present day extrapolation,” which is a fancy way of saying who the hell knows where science and technology will be that far into the future? As befitting a MacGuffin, the medical marvels we see on Elysium are in no way explained. They just are. Why they don’t exist on Earth (other than, perhaps, being too expensive) is also unexplained. (Leaving important things unexplained being, of course, the essence of MacGuffin-dom.)

By comparison, Earth seems almost totally devoid of anything we’d identify as high tech – despite that a hundred and fifty years of making consumer items out of technology should have produced some low-cost wonders. In any case, the low tech Earth means that guns and other weaponry are still of the blast and blow-to-smithereens variety, which makes for nice, noisy battle scenes.

On a more technical level, there has been some kvetching about details of the Elysium torus. This is especially about the apparently open-to-space interior of the wheel that somehow holds the atmosphere in place. Glad to see some interest in the science of spin gravity, since if man goes into space successfully, it will require spinning environments of many kinds. I’m inclined to believe that the torus (wheel) is far too small to generate enough gravity to hold an open atmosphere, but this design probably found its way into the movie because it made for much better camera angles and an appealing aesthetic sense of openness.

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