Remember District 9? You know, Neill Blomkamp’s critically acclaimed sci-fi political allegory on post-apartheid South Africa? Well, Sony Pictures is certainly hoping you do. Because Elysium, with its $115 million blockbuster price tag ($85 million more than District 9‘s cost), is the latest brainchild from that very same man. And having already dished out feel-good summer flops like After Earth and White House Down, Sony’s really hoping you’re up for a good ol’ politically charged sci-fi romp. So without further ado, I give you…
Earth, 2154. An overcrowded wasteland of crime, poverty and medical malnourishment. The world’s financial elite, having grown tired of such earthly problems, have long ago placed their former home in the rearview and now reside on Elysium: an enormous space station habitat hovering just above Earth, shaped like the Mercedes-Benz logo. Matt Damon aptly plays Max, your average earthly felon working a grueling factory job in the Juarez-like state of modern-day Los Angeles. As an orphaned child, Max looked to the sky and dreamed of someday reaching Elysium’s rolling green hills, lavish swimming pools and cure-all medical pods. He shared as much with the boyhood love of his life, Frey (played by Alice Braga as an adult), who now works as a nurse in one of L.A.’s many congested hospitals. But stopping Max and countless others from ever achieving said dream is Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who, in the name of Homeland Security, routinely shoots down any and all illegal-immigrant-carrying space modules that attempt to breach Elysium’s atmosphere. Those that actually make it to the surface are quickly arrested by droids and deported back to Earth.
It goes without saying that Blomkamp has created a parable to the current condition of U.S. immigration laws. While a bit heavy-handed in approach, the back story itself is presented genuinely and is quite tolerable. Elysium’s sets and visual effects are also well-thought and seamless, respectively, and the reputable acting forces of Damon and Foster bolster characters that could fail miserably with lesser talent. That being said, when Max becomes the victim of radiation poisoning that leaves him just five days to live, it’s not without sincerity that we root for him in his sudden urgent need to reach the medical wonders of Elysium.
But it’s no small feat to make those hallowed grounds on just five days’ notice. Max is forced to dive into his past, taking a job from hacker/human smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura); a job that ultimately requires him to capture defense weapons mogul John Carlyle (William Fichtner) in order to transfer encrypted information regarding Elysium from Carlyle’s brain into his own. Carlyle, unbeknownst to Max and Spider, is in cahoots with Secretary Delacourt, planning a technological coup that will ensure continued, unflinching efforts to keep earthly undesirables out of Elysium. (The pairing turns out to be a curious reuniting of the Foster-Fichtner tandem that helped drive Contact.)
At this point the film begins to peak. Max is fitted with a powerful exoskeleton to give his ailing body Herculean strength, which then allows him to go on the warpath against brilliantly fluid CGI droids, as well as a more-than-adequate super villain/rogue military agent named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). For a good 30 to 45 minutes, the barefaced transparencies of Elysium’s plot are put aside, and sci-fi fans are treated to compelling action sequences played out by characters not without merit of intrigue. As the climax begins to unfold and the love interest finds its way back into the picture—complete with leukemia-stricken daughter—Elysium has managed to establish itself as having just enough heart and prowess to defeat many shortcomings, including a cliché ending.
But at the end of the day, Elysium’s relevance around the water cooler will be its stance on the controversial state of U.S. immigration laws. Does it totally succeed in presentation? No. Republicans will hate it. Others will say it panders—which it does. But c’mon. At its best, Elysium follows humbly in the footsteps of sci-fi classics that pushed a political agenda, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Planet of the Apes. At its worst, it simply stirs the drink. But you could do a lot worse than that.