When I was young and innocent, I read lots of science books with unadulterated enthusiasm, and some of them were about how our human civilization would look different through advanced technologies. The futuristic world shown through those books looked pretty fantastic to me, and I especially loved the grand illustrations of how our world would look after 30 or 70 years. While the 21th century I am experiencing at present does not look as fantastic as I imagined despite lots of technological advance, these illustrations still remain vividly in my memories, and I fondly remember them from time to time.
One of the most impressive ones was the one depicting a huge circular space colony floating in the space, and “Elysium” strongly touched my memory of it when its opening sequence showed the gigantic wheel structure of the space colony floating near the Earth. The panoramic view of the leisurely and bountiful world inside its big rim is uncannily similar to that wonderful illustration I saw, and its vividness automatically made me wonder about how this isolated ecosystem and social structure can be maintained.
But the movie rather focuses on the dystopian world on the Earth far grittier and shabbier than that, and this is also presented with considerable degrees of verisimilitude. It is 2154, and the Earth has been heavily polluted since the late 21th century, and everyday is struggle for lots of people in LA, which now looks like a huge slum area you can find in the developing countries(the movie was shot in Mexico, by the way). They are poor and desperate while repressed by the android robots functioning as legal authorities, and they do not get much help when they are sick. There are hospitals, but the resource in the hospitals is limited, and they have to throw out patients if there is nothing they can do.
There is a way to get the medical care they need, but it is not so easy to get. The rich and powerful already moved to a big space colony named Elysium many years ago, and they have been enjoying clean environment and good health since their moving day thanks to advanced technology. Every house looks big and luxurious, and each has a special medical equipment which virtually can cure any sickness or injury. In one case, it can completely restore the heavily damaged face of one character within few minutes, and he just looks and sounds same as before. My late friend Roger Ebert, who lost his jaw after his unfortunate surgery complication several years ago, would probably love to have such a wonderful machine.
Naturally, many people on the Earth want to go to Elysium although the chance is quite low to say the least. Under the supervision of a powerful local gang leader named Spider(Wagner Moura), the illegal immigration is frequently attempted through stolen space shuttles, but they are always detected before they arrive at Elysium, and the people are quickly caught and then promptly deported to the Earth even if they manage to land on Elysium.
Max(Matt Damon), an ex-con currently under probation, is also one of the people hoping to get there someday, but he knows it too well that his dream is nearly unreachable. He does not earn much while working at the corporation factory where the android robots are manufactured, and he is just thankful that he gets a chance for a shabby but decent life after released from prison.
However, after one unfortunate accident at the factory, he is notified that he has only five days to live due to the heavy radiation exposure during the accident, and he is quickly fired with no severance pay except a bottle of painkiller. As a guy with nothing to lose, he is determined to go to Elysium by any means necessary, so he goes to Spider, who gladly gives Max a job to do as a part of their deal.
The rest of the story becomes a bit complicated as the things get messy for everyone. It was like a simple last job to Max, but he finds himself suddenly getting involved with a secret plan by Delacourt(Jodie Foster), the draconian defense minister of Elysium, and John Carlyle(William Fichtner), the unsympathetic CEO of the corporation producing androids and other robots and weapons. He is soon chased by Delacourt’s psychotic agent Kruger(Sharlto Copley on full manic mode) and other brutal agents, and his old childhood friend Frey(Alice Braga) and her cute little sick daughter come to be in a grave danger just because she encounters him and then gives some little help to him.
The director/writer Neill Blomkamp, who previously impressed us a lot with “District 9”(2009), gives us again an entertaining science fiction decorated with nice ideas and a thought-provoking social commentary. The striking contrast between the stark and gloomy landscapes of LA and the abundant and bright world of Elysium is the most memorable aspect of the film, and you may be reminded of our current social problem while observing this overwhelming class difference in the movie. The climax of the story is centered on Max and others’ race against the time for getting the medical care they need, and you may identify with their dogged determination a lot if you are an advocate of universal health care like me.
It is rather shame that, like “District 9” did, the movie goes down into the less interesting area during its second half. Its heavy-handed predictable finale is drenched with lots of shootings and fights and blatant messages, and it mostly suffers from not only many contrivances in its story but also frequent busy quick cuts during its action scenes. At least the action scenes are mainly focused on actors rather than CGIs, but I started to lose my interest as the movie frantically ran along with actions instead of more thoughtfully building up its story to the ending.
And it would have been nicer if people behind the movie had thought more about the world they would depict before resorting to a simple action story. How can the brave new world of Elysium be managed if every sickness and disability is curable? Is immortality possible under such a condition, or banned for its population control? And how does the rest of the crumbling human civilization on the Earth look like?
While it is relatively disappointing compared to “District 9”, “Elysium” is fairly recommendable as one of the better summer blockbuster movies. Matt Damon maintains his everyman persona even when his character is equipped with a special exoskeleton suit to support and empower his weakening body, and we can hold on to the story through his solid performance even when the story gets shaky. It is too bad that other actors around him are stuck in functional roles, and one of the biggest flaws in the movie is Jodie Foster’s weak performance – but you will clearly see that it is not her fault at all, considering how flat and unconvincing her character is.
So far, my more jaded side still keeps saying “Elysium” is one of those ordinary SF blockbusters filled with bangs and booms and maybe it really is, but I sort of like the movie in spite of my reservation. It does not explore deeply into its ideas and potentials, but, folks, watching one of my fun childhood memories fully realized on the big screen is certainly not something I see everyday.