"No, no, no. This isn't science fiction. This is now. This is today." -- Neil Blomkamp, writer-director, "Elysium"
I'm still kind of laid up due to a sciatic condition which makes it hard for me to get around. Yesterday, though, we did a test to see where my limitations were. We went shopping for food for our guest and household supplies -- which meant that I would drive to several locations and hobble around some relatively large stores as well as I could.
Welp, driving wasn't a problem, though I doubt I could do it for more than a half hour or so at a time. Walking was OK -- with a cane -- for what I thought was a good length of time and a fair distance, though it wasn't in the end long enough or far enough. I was fine for a while, then really bad pains started rising in my left leg, the one affected by sciatica, pains from the knee on down, pain that was so intense I couldn't walk any farther without taking a break. Luckily there were some chairs to sit on, so it wasn't a crisis by any means. After a few minutes rest, I was able to continue on for a while, and then had to take a break again. The length of the break became longer, and the length of time I could walk relatively well became shorter. So experiment finally had to end, but not before we had gotten nearly everything we needed for the rest of our friend's stay and had picked up some necessary supplies as well.
One of the things we got was a DVD of Elysium. We had planned to see it in the theatre, but something came up and we weren't able to go before the local run ended. Seeing it on DVD was not the same of course, but it was fine for our purposes.
Well, while watching the movie, I kept thinking that "Elysium" was something like Neil Blomkamp's District 9 on steroids. This man, Neil Blomkamp, is really quite a remarkable young filmmaker, as he showed in the frighteningly truthful and original "District 9" from 2009. Part of what appeals to me in his films is his sense of justice, and his highly idiosyncratic and unusual (at least in contemporary filmdom) story-telling. He's very straightforward, yet nuanced; his characters and situations ring very true, neither all good nor all evil, though the dystopian science fiction realm in which he's set both "District 9" and "Elysium" is fantasy. There's something youthful and honest about his approach. His perspective is distinctly South African, obviously based on what he knows from his life there. It's not a pretty picture at all. And yet parts of it -- especially in "Elysium" -- are spectacularly pretty. And pretty as they are, they are ultimately empty and even evil. And though we may think of South Africa as a very different place than the United States, in many ways the resemblances between the two countries, or at least parts of them, are shocking.
Elysium is set in 2154, not that far in the future. The Earth is pretty well used up by then, and the teeming multitudes who in habit its apparently global township-slums are barely able to get by, and those who do, do so on the sufferance of their betters, who live far above them... literally.
The movie deals with the issue of class and class divisions in a near-future world, based on the way things have been for Earthlings for generations, as starkly as any film I've seen -- except for "District 9" which deals with those divisions in even starker terms.
Of course, the central fact of life in South Africa now almost as much as in the past is the starkest of class divisions -- divisions that were once based entirely on race, but now depend on wealth accumulation more than race.
Much the same has happened in the United States.
Blomkamp's proposition is that as conditions become more dire on Earth -- due to pollution, rapine and global warming, among other things -- the High and the Mighty build for themselves a whirling wheel in space where they re-create idyllic terrestrial conditions and neighborhoods of mansions (much like those in Bel Air and Beverly Hills come to think of it) and they call it Elysium. From this whirling wheel in space, the High and the Mighty rule their relatively docile vassals living (if you want to call it that) on the teeming wreckage of civilization below. Earth has become the barrio, the ghetto, the township.
The Rulers control the population through their all-knowing surveillance, brutal police robots, drones and hired killers who roam among the people with malice and cruel intent. Those who are lucky -- and behave themselves -- can work for the Rulers under conditions of servitude, danger and contempt. Not all that unlike conditions many billions of people face today.
The setting on Earth is mostly among the hovels and ruins of Los Angeles where millions live in penury and fear. Max Da Costa, played by Matt Damon, is a parolee, whose job -- such as it is -- is building robot police for Armadyne Corp, headed by CEO John Carlyle. Anyone who's been following corporate-government fusion over these last few decades will get a mordant chuckle or two out of the names chosen by Blomkamp. I'm sure he laughed a bit himself.
The story, as it builds from a relatively dour opening, is anything but a laugh. In fact, the film fairly well keeps one on the edge of one's seat, especially after Max is ordered into the radiation chamber to clear a jam where he receives a lethal dose of radiation. The conceit is that Max has five days to live and the only way to save his life is to get him to Elysium, where household Med-Bays apparently cure anything.
The only way to get Max to Elysium is through a coyote named Spider who sends injured and dying "illegals" on risky 19 minute trips to Elysium for the chance of cure, Most are shot out of Elysium's airspace -- under the sure direction of Jodie Foster as Defense Secretary Delacorte. Since she wants to be president and believes she can accomplish her aims by digital coup so long as she can get access to the appropriate reboot codes through Carlyle.
Confused yet? Well, it makes sense in the context of the story.
There are many complications and not a few gory-looking fire- and physical fights before matters are settled. How they are settled is something of a wonder, for in the end, the overriding program of Elysium is rebooted in such a way that the former regime is completely eliminated and the resources being horded by Elysium are released for the benefit of the people on Earth, particularly the resources that will enable Earth residents to be healed of their diseases and injuries.
Though there are elements from many previous science fiction thriller action movies in "Elysium," and the story is not as unique as that of "District 9," the picture is surprisingly moving and satisfying. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster are stellar in their roles, Jodie so severe she's practically chewing other character's limbs off. Sharlto Copely (from the cast of "District 9") as the mercenary Kruger is something of a standard model villain, but under the circumstances, it's little wonder he'd become what he is and do what he does.
The rest of the cast is fine -- almost an ensemble -- and the production values are at typical high-priced Hollywood standards. This is a strong movie, about us, about now, re-imagined in the future, a time-honored tactic in the genre.
"Elysium" was more than worth the time, and we were sorry we hadn't seen it sooner.