Rise of the rotten utopia

Elysium3SR: Sumptuous world building and a paper thing story can’t disguise the brutal metaphor behind Elysium – there’s something rotten in paradise, and it’s us.
Elysium
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp

Action, drama, science fiction, thriller. 1hr 49mins. R16 for violence and offensive language

***1/2
Great sci-fi has always been a metaphor for the human condition.  When Isaac Asimov’s robots questioned their existence in books like I, Robot, our own  human privileges were thrown into sharp relief.
Elysium, by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, owes a lot to the idea that examining a fantasy world is a safe way to take a closer look at our own.
It’s 2154 and the earth is a cesspool of overpopulation, desperation and extreme poverty. Meanwhile, the ultra-rich are sequestered on a space station paradise called Elysium, where illness and poverty are unimaginable and your every whim is catered to by robots and machines built by the struggling masses back on Earth.After an horrific accident at just such a robot factory, ex-con Max (Matt Damon) is told he only has five days to live unless he can get to Elysium.
With the minister of defence (Jodie Foster) and her henchman (Sharlto Copley) on his tail, and exhibiting the acute selfishness the pressures of the system demand, Max refuses to help a former flame get her sick daughter up to the life saving space station too.
But when she’s dragged into the fight with him anyway, Max must decide if the needs of the many will outweigh his own.
Massively convoluted and contrived (co-incidences are jarring in any film, but practically slap you in the face here), the plot is the weakest part of this sumptuous film.
Blomkamps eye for detail is the real star – from the exquisitely realised robot cops (who are just as jerk-ish as any film cop ever was), to the “Versace” styled healing pods, to the grubby, back-engineered exo-suits, the world of Elysium has depth and veracity to put it up there with classics like Blade Runner and Alien.
While Blomkamp’s eye is always unflinching, it’s also playful.  The first big action set piece begins with the camera tracking on the back of Damon’s head, like a first person shooter video game, stopping just short of showing a sore tally with each of the characters’ brutal kill shots.
And while the story leaves a lot to be desired – the woman in peril trope is so done.  So, so done – as a more than 1 1/2 hour metaphor for the One Per Cent v Occupy movement, it really works – despite the heavy handed treatment – casting the greed of the upper classes in a very cold light.
Unfortunately, Matt Damon seems completely out of his depth next to the sci-fi elements.  There’s not even enough Jason Bourne left in him to sell much of the action. He also stands out awkwardly as the only whitey left scrabbling in the muck of Earth.
One can’t help wondering at the Hollywood juggernaut requiring a big name like him above the title when there must have been tens of thousands of Latino actors in LA who could have given the role the pathos it needed.
Damon is never vulnerable enough to believe as the desperate ne’er-do-well and when Max changes direction in the third act, it seems sudden and inexplicable.
Sharlto Copley, on the other hand, seems discomfortingly at ease in his role as the psychotic military attack dog. And while his accent will not fail to get a laugh, it’ll be an uncomfortable one. He’s downright despicable.
In keeping with the fable-like style of the story, all the One Percenter baddies are Disney Villain horrible – often more machine like than the robots guarding them. Jodie Foster is particularly one-note and almost hammy at times.
It all means the film falls unaccountably flat, unlike Blomkamp’s similarly metaphoric, yet far more pathos filled first film.
Even so, I can’t help thinking Elysium is destined for greatness.  It’s clever, beautiful, and politically,  stands firmly on the side of the angels.Much like the society it condemns, only time will tell if that’s good enough.

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