Neill Blomkamp's latest sociopolitical sci-fi masterpiece, Elysium, is being called dystopian for portraying a world in the year 2154 where the ultra wealthy have abandoned an earth wracked by poverty, disease, crime, and pollution to live in the ultimate gated community aboard an orbiting space station. But if you read the news -- which is full of stories about impending environmental catastrophe, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and a republican party obsessed with lionizing the wealthy and making those in need suffer -- Elysium seems more predictive than pessimistic. After all, the 1 percent already live in a world so different from ours -- where they can flout the law, enjoy the best in medical care, and be untouched by the planet's problems, concerns, and priorities -- that they might as well be on another planet.
However, making on observation like that appears to be too much for the small minds of many, like republicans who have been quick to denounce Elysium as socialist liberal Hollywood nonsense, or others whining that Elysium's social commentary is simply too heavy-handed for the movie to be enjoyed. But don't listen to either of them, since Blomkamp's ability to weave sociopolitical themes into stunning, powerful sci-fi films is what makes him one of the best directors working today. And I was so blown away by Elysium that I need two reviews to describe why I think it's the best movie of this summer by far, and probably of 2013. Watch my ReThink Review of Elysium below, followed by my take on why Elysium's sociopolitical commentary is so accurate, needed, and welcome (transcript following).
Part 1 transcript
It feels like a long time since 2009, when Neill Blomkamp's first feature District 9 was released, a sci-fi allegory about apartheid, privatization, and the weapons industry that blew minds with its social commentary, the fabulous performance of Sharlto Copley, and its mix of gritty realism and stunning CG effects done with a budget of just $30 million. Summer blockbusters have only gotten bigger since then, with ballooning nine-figure budgets and an ever-greater reliance on CG, but with a corresponding drop in substance that has wary summer audiences staying home. But Blomkamp is back with Elysium, another groundbreaking sci-fi masterpiece full of up-to-the-minute social commentary that proves not only that District 9 was no fluke, but that Blomkamp, after just his second film, deserves to be considered among the best directors working today.
Elysium takes place in 2154, where life on earth has become so polluted, diseased, and poverty-stricken that Earth's ultra-rich have created the ultimate gated community -- an orbiting space station called Elysium -- where they can "preserve their way of life" and continue to live in idyllic, luxurious splendor, ostensibly forever thanks to advanced medical technology that can reverse aging and miraculously cure any ailment.
The promise of that technology drives Max, an earthbound factory worker and former criminal (played by Matt Damon), to find a way to Elysium after a workplace accident gives him only days to live. Without the money to pay for an illegal crossing, Max makes a deal with a human trafficker/revolutionary named Spider (played by Brazil's biggest actor Wagner Moura), to help Spider's crew extract valuable data from the brain of John Carlyle, the wealthy industrialist who created Elysium (played by William Fichtner). But when that data turns out to be more valuable than anyone imagined, and with a psychotic South African mercenary named Krueger (played by Sharlto Copley) after him, Max is forced into a struggle with consequences much larger than his own survival.
Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the official in charge of Elysium's safety who, like most modern-day movie villains, seems patterned after Dick Cheney. Alice Braga plays Max's childhood sweetheart Frey, whose daughter is dying of leukemia, with Diego Luna rounding out the international cast as Max's former partner in crime.
Blomkamp's genius for creating realistic, lived-in worlds is on display early and often, with his uncanny ability to combine motion capture and CG effects with real actors, locations, and fantastically designed physical objects, like the exoskeleton that's bolted to Max's body to enhance his strength even as he's dying. Not only are the weapons, spaceships, and the mix of old and new technologies amazingly designed, but they feel used, aged, and patched, unless they're on Elysium, where everything is gleaming, stylish, and new. Damon also helps the film's realism, with his talent for natural performances that hardly make it seem like he's acting at all. And Copley's performance is so terrifying that it's mindboggling to think of the meek character he played in District 9.
But one of the biggest contributors to Elysium's realism is Blomkamp's decision to set the film's earth scenes in Los Angeles but shoot them in the sprawling slums of current-day Mexico City. This helps ground the film in reality, because if you think the gap between the wealthy and the poor in this movie is dystopian sci-fi hyperbole, YOU LIVE IN A FUCKING DREAM WORLD. Compare the lives, health, and environment of the poor today with that of the 1%, and they might as well be on different planets, whether it's individuals or entire nations, since much of the developed world might as well be Elysium if you live in a poor, unstable country.
Filming in Mexico also helps Elysium make its points about immigration, with Spider essentially acting as a coyote, launching "undocumented" spaceships full of "illegals" (as the film calls them) who risk being arrested or killed to receive needed medical care. Again, if you think a wealthy society would never be so cruel and greedy as to allow or even cause children to die of preventable illness, you better wake up.
Some could justifiably knock Elysium for having a plot that's very similar to that of District 9, but maybe that's because the story of an average person who foregoes his own self interest for the good of the many is a classic one that's at least as old as Jesus. But more importantly, Elysium is masterful on every level, where I spent the entire movie leaning forward in my seat, repeatedly thinking, "I can't believe how good this movie is." Neill Blomkamp is working on a completely different level, doing for action and sci-fi what directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher are doing for drama. If you don't like action, sci-fi, or political movies, Elysium is still a movie you should see. And for those who rightfully complain about brainless blockbusters, Elysium is what you've been waiting for -- a movie with excitement and action, but more importantly, with heart, soul, brains, and guts.