Society's current issues are seen through sci-fi lens
Sci-fi film shows a world gone horribly wrong: the world we live in now
Posted: August 28, 2013
Matt Damon takes up arms against a socially unjust system in Elysium.
Science fiction works best not when it is about the problems that people will face in the future, but when it offers insight into the world we live in today. Elysium, set on a devastated Earth in the year 2154, is a broad parable about the growing divide between the rich and poor.
South African-Canadian writer/director Neill Blomkamp previously made District 9, which dealt with segregation and xenophobia. He expands on these themes in latest film. While Elysium features a lot of futuristic gunplay and robotic hand-to-hand combat - sometimes to the point of tedium - the film overcomes that flaw by having a message that many people can relate to, and conveying it in a manner that never becomes overtly preachy.
Planet Earth has become so polluted, resources so scarce and crime so rampant that the rich have abandoned it to live in the low-orbiting space station that gives the film its name. The station is visible from Earth, and many of the impoverished denizens of the surface will do anything to try to get illegal passage there in hope of somehow getting a better life.
Earth is like a giant Detroit, a once-great place left in ruins with no tax base, no jobs and little hope of a real recovery. Elysium is the ultimate suburban gated community, a separate society where the idle rich spend all of their time sitting by the pool or dressing up for fancy fund-raising parties, while living in fear of illegal immigrants invading their community and somehow diminishing their opulent lifestyle.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
With Matt Damon. Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
The key issue to the plot is equal access to health care. Those on Earth crowd into hospital emergency rooms where a few bandages and ineffective pills are dispensed for everything, while on Elysium every home has a flat-bed scanning unit called a med-pod that can remove any ailment and eliminate any genetic defect. The med-pods are programmed only to work for Elysium citizens.
For a surface dweller to use one, first that person has to get a sort of tattoo bearing a forged citizenship and then get up to Elysium in an unauthorized shuttle, and find a med-pod before the robot police capture them and send them back - or kill them. It is the sci-fi version of people from the Third World trying to use a leaky boat to sneak into Europe or the U.S. for social benefits, but told from the point of view of those on the lower rungs of society.
Early on the plot becomes clear. A boy in an orphanage promises a young girl that one day he will somehow take her to Elysium so they can have a better life than what the massive slums of what once was Los Angeles have to offer. A nun in the orphanage encourages the boy to stop stealing like the others do because she feels he is bound for some great act in the future.
The boy grows up to be Max Da Costa, played by a sincere Matt Damon. Now an ex-con. he is constantly lured back toward trouble by his car-stealing friends, but tries to keep on the right side of the law, however unfair those laws might be.
The girl is Frey, played as an adult by Alice Braga, a Brazilian actress who has had roles in I am Legend and Predators. She is the niece of art-film icon Sônia Braga. Frey has managed to make a success of herself and is reluctant to restart a friendship with Max.
Max has never let go of his dream, and is one of the few people to have a job - doing dangerous menial factory work for the evil Armadyne Corporation that built and services Elysium. One of the few commuters to Earth from Elysium is Armadyne's CEO John Carlyle, played by the always smarmy William Fichter. He is more concerned about profits than human life, and gold-trimmed killer robots escort him everywhere he goes. Indeed, he doesn't even consider the inhabitants of Earth to be human.
Elysium seems to be a paradise, but there are ripples under the surface of the calm. Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt, played by a coolly efficient Jodie Foster, openly violates the rules regarding the use of deadly force against illegal immigrants and mocks the satellite's weak president.
These elements set the plot on several fairly predictable collision courses, but the execution of story, with its moral overtones against greedy, unregulated companies that are currently destroying society, as well as the struggles the poor face to get access to affordable health care, put this several notches above similar sci-fi action fare.
The overall plot is not that different than that of Oblivion, a film released in April that starred Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman - humans are on a devastated Earth, while some elites inhabit a low-flying satellite in the sky. The surface is also patrolled by killer robots. In the end, despite excellent acting and great set design, Oblivion was about little more than CGI shootouts and pulling a last-minute plot switch on the audience.
Elysium isn't fully original. It has echoes that go all the way back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a 1927 film with idle rich people living in a surface paradise, while abused workers toiled underground in slave-like conditions. It also has more that a touch of Robocop and a dash of other dystopian cinematic visions. But it assembles those pieces into a biting social commentary on today's headlines. That, couple with a fine cast and impressive production values make Elysium a sci-fi treat.
Raymond Johnston can be reached at
Tags: Neill Blomkamp, Matt Damon, Elysium, sci-fi.