From its initial shot of a future Los Angeles – a city-slum reminiscent of Mexican favelas – to an eerily beautiful slow-pan through space, towards the orbital habitat where the rich live, Elysium draws viewers into its sci-fi world of harsh contrasts. It is these contrasts that shape both the well-imagined setting and propel Max de Costa (Matt Damon) on a collision course with Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Elysium depicts a future where the widening gap between rich and poor has seen Earth transformed into a ghetto-planet, ruined by civil war, pollution and overpopulation. Seeking to flee this harsh reality, the rich live on an orbital space station named Elysium, in idyllic houses surrounded by wide expanses of grass and forest. However, wealth isn’t the main focus of viewers’ glimpse into life on Elysium. Instead, the most precious resource seems to be med-pods that allow for the complete regeneration of body tissue, allowing those living on Elysium to painlessly fix any wrinkles or heal any wound. Existing as a political allegory (in a similar manner to George Orwell’s Animal Farm) Elysium asks moral and political questions that seem intended to provoke thought and debate. Alongside this, the film provides an excellent sci-fi setting as well as a gripping narrative.
The first ten minutes of the film showcase the striking differences between life on Earth and life on Elysium. Max de Costa is an ex-criminal who works contentedly, helping to build the robots that the upper classes living on Elysium use to maintain their space station, as well as keep the population of Earth in order. During an accident at work, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, which leaves him with only five days to live. Having spent his childhood gazing up into the sky at Elysium with longing, he realises that his only chance of survival is to break in and cure himself. Offering his services to his ex-gang in exchange for a trip to Elysium, Max is fitted with an exo-skeleton which enhance his strength and reflexes. When Elysium’s Secretary of Defence Delacourt learns of Max’s plan to break into Elysium, she activates sleeper cell agents led by the ruthless Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who delights in the inventive ways he kills his victims. This excellent interplay between hunter and hunted provides much of the thrills for the first half of Elysium.
In much the same way as Director Neill Blomkamp’s excellent debut film District 9, Elysium offers an alternative look into the future to that of many other films. Where District 9 examined humanities’ reaction to having to live alongside aliens who had crash landed on Earth (in an allegory for apartheid Africa), Elysium depicts two futures, one where mankind almost destroys itself, and another where human expansion into space allows for the creation of the perfect habitat for humans. That both of these futures exist alongside each other adds to the political commentary that Elysium offers.
What’s exceptional is that, political commentary aside, Blomkamp has created a rich, detailed and, most importantly, believable world. One particularly prominent example of this is of a spaceship launching from a hangar on Elysium. As the ship launches, leaves that had blown in from the habitat of Elysium are thrown into the air, a realistic touch in a scene that felt much more rooted in our reality than similar take-off scenes from Star Wars’ sterilised white and grey space stations. This attention to detail is also seen on Earth, as luxury spaceships fly over groups of children begging on the streets, throwing dust and sand over workers lining up to begin work.
Initially, Blomkamp was intended to direct a film version of the Halo game, and seeing Elysium left me with no doubts that he would have been an excellent choice. The film features brilliantly imagined future weaponry, such as a rifle that shoots rounds that explode into mini-shotgun blasts when they near their target, or Kruger’s shruiken, which features a mini-grenade that he detonates after throwing it into an enemy (laughing maniacally as he does so: “It’s just a flesh-wound!”). These somewhat-realistic weapons are an interesting comparison to those found in District 9, which featured even more impressive effects and alien weaponry. The stellar special effects and action sequences during the fight scenes awe the audience, making it an even greater shame that Elysium doesn’t show these off to a greater extent.
Despite these impressive effects and awesome weapons, Elysium can be criticized for its one-dimensional, and often confused, character-arcs. The evolution of Max’s character is foreshadowed in a heavy-handed manner throughout the film, and the perplexing actions of Kruger and Max’s gang-boss, Spider, in the latter half of the film seem unexplained and unnecessary. Further, viewers are never given a reason to connect with or care for the cast, who appear to serve as plot-devices rather than memorable characters. Though even more glaring is the film’s latter half, which sticks out as being the weaker of the two. This rushes hastily towards the conclusion, which feels slightly inconclusive and leaves some glaring plot questions unanswered.
When viewed as a whole, Elysium examines many important questions that face us today, such as the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, the evil of worker exploitation, the ugliness of xenophobic anti-immigration laws and the availability and affordability of healthcare. Alongside posing these provocative questions, Elysium provides a thrilling and entertaining sci-fi adventure set in a believable world that, if we are not careful to guard against in the present, we may be faced with in the future.