'Elysium': Angry sci-fi from the director of 'District 9'

Posted: August 09, 2013

IN 2154 in "Elysium," the rich have left the surface of the Earth and now live, literally above it all, on an orbiting wheel that looks like a luxury bracelet.

The teeming masses below, on a ruined and overcrowded planet, can see this gleaming jewel in the sky, hung in a heavenly display case whose armor is unbreachable in the distance.

This metaphor extends to the movie's product placement - the frosty monster (Jodie Foster) who maintains order and exclusivity on the rarefied biosphere is pointedly seen to be wearing a Bulgari watch, an indication that the demented elitism satirized in "Elysium" is not as far-fetched, or as far away, as we may think.

No bling back on Earth. No health care, either. The grubby and expendable poor live and work under the supervision, and the lash, of robots designed by the rich.

Many of the earthbound, including Max (Matt Damon), work in the factories that produce the robots, building the very machines that enslave them.

This hyper-inequality drives the plot - Max learns that the woman (Alice Braga) he loves has a daughter with leukemia. Only the privileged have access to life-saving health care, and only on Elysium, so Max teems with a hacker/gangster band to launch a desperate shuttle mission to the looming satellite of swells.

You may wonder, amid all of this blunt-force social commentary, if a summer sci-fi movie has a chance to emerge. Well, yes. Here and there. "Elysium" is the work of Neill Blomkamp, who mixed politics and entertainment successfully in his bracing post-apartheid drama "District 9" (the movies have a very similar look).

He has a genius for sci-fi with a lived-in feel, and he's created a thoughtful world filled with plausible objects, each with its own implied evolution - an upgraded AK-47, for instance, that fires a pulse projectile that disintegrates robots. (There's also an awesome laser welder. I want one.)

There is a great sequence here of Max and his pirate band facing off against a squad of robocops led by a fearsome special-forces mercenary (Sharlto Copley). The two meet again in the movie's clanging finale.

"Elysium" is a violent eruption of politically charged ideas, not all of them (like the busy plot) worked out. There is a weird accent regime - French and Afrikaans as the sound of oppression, Spanish the language of the oppressed. Foster, at times, displays 10 accents in a single sentence.

It's weird to see a mainstream movie this grim and angry. Blomkamp seethes at income (and outcome) inequality. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? "Elysium" wonders what happens when the gap between rich and poor becomes stratospheric, and permanent.

These grievances are not new, of course - they date back at least to H.G. Wells, with his Morlocks and Eloi (the title dates back to Homer). But there is an interesting profusion of like-minded movies at the multiplex.

We're just a year removed from Catwoman asking Bruce Wayne: "You're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

Woody Allen, of all people, attacks delusional upper-crust culture in "Blue Jasmine," out today.

I don't know what the commercial prospects are for the scowling, weighty "Elysium." But "Dark Knight Rises" and "Hunger Games" have found vast and enthusiastic audiences.

I think the natives are getting restless.

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