The year is 2154, the place a “diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated” planet Earth, and the writer-director is Neill Blomkamp, the filmmaker behind District 9, the unlikely 2009 sci-fi Best Picture Oscar nominee. In Elysium, Blomkamp takes on—and exhilaratingly amplifies—some of the same themes as District 9, and if his newest dystopian vision does not have that film’s philosophical depth, it does offer a jagged thrill ride through thought-provoking scenarios.
Sharlto Copley, District 9’s nebbishy antihero, is also aboard, as a mentally unbalanced, time-warped mercenary who enlivens much of the film as one of the most eccentric adversaries of recent memory. Copley’s weird Afrikaans accent is not only entertaining, but underscores the film’s pan-national subtext: Though Elysium—the name of a utopian, artificial land mass stationed in Earth’s atmosphere—spews many a thinly veiled barb at immigration policies, its real target is the global 1 percent and the lengths they will go to in maintaining their standard of living. While Jodie Foster, as Elysium’s defense minister, is less successful with her made-up upper-class accent, the character’s ruthless sense of entitlement adds considerably to the film’s futuristic chill.
Matt Damon’s Max (all the character names are symbolic) is living a hardscrabble life in the slums of Los Angeles as a factory serf assembling the robots that supervise all municipal functions and enforce the Orwellian laws. A reformed carjacker, he keeps a friendly distance from his former associates while pining for his childhood sweetheart, Frey (Alice Braga). And then a workplace abuse forces him to offer his criminal services to Spider (Wagner Moura), who runs an underground shuttle to the forbidden Elysium. It also reunites him with Frey, now an emergency-room nurse. Among the film’s extrapolations of present-day fear factors is the scarcity of medical care for the teeming hordes overcrowded into Los Angeles, which now resembles a wasteland refugee camp, and where inhabitants can only dream of someday escaping to Elysium.
It’s one of the plot’s major failings that it doesn’t address what would happen if Elysium were to become as overpopulated as Earth, though it does handily circumvent that question with a heroic, altruistic effort by Max. Untrained but tougher than Jason Bourne ever thought of being, Max undergoes radical body modification—a paramilitary exoskeleton is fused to his spine, and his brain is implanted with a portal for digitalized bio-organic data—that allows him to do battle with Elysium’s covert forces, namely, Copley’s Kruger. The high-octane battle scenarios are exciting, clever, and expertly choreographed, eventually distilling into an atavistic struggle for that one commodity that crosses all barriers: family. And though Blomkamp’s narrative vision—along with the dialogue—fizzles into cliché for the final conflict, Damon’s all-too-human robo-warrior keeps the film’s adrenaline flowing until the very end.