I was in Edinburgh last week for one of the all-too-infrequent day visits with Connor and Chris, two of my friends. Whilst we had decided that the trip would involve going to the cinema, we hadn't a clue what we were actually going to see until about half an hour before the film started. Having surfed through most of the options on my phone, and dismissed a vast majority of them, I suggested we try a movie I was vaguely curious to have a look at: Neill Blomkamp's dystopian sci-fi Elysium.
Blomkamp had only one feature film to his name before he made Elysium - the well-received District 9 from 2009 - but he already had an enviable reputation in allegorical science fiction. Amazingly, District 9 was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2010 (losing it to The Hurt Locker), one of the few from that genre to achieve that honour. Famously, not even Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was nominated. It was for that reason that I decided to give him a go.
For Elysium, it appears that Blomkamp has decided to be a bit more subtle with his metaphors and a bit more focussed on the action side of things. Elysium is an enormous, beautiful satellite where the privileged of Earth have set up home in order to escape from the mess of a planet beneath them (a concept not previously unheard of: I kept getting flashbacks to Wall-E). A hairless Matt Damon is part of the unloved back on Earth, and part of a plan to infiltrate Elysium and put every human back onto the same level. This is easier described than done, though, as any illegal ships found entering Elysium's sacred airspace are immediately destroyed by a big gun shot by a very angry South African man down on the surface.
Naturally, in a film in which a handheld missile launcher is used to take out spaceships as they fire off into orbit, there is an abundance of violence in Elysium. Some of the images will stick with you for a while. There's the bloody surgery scene, where Matt gets holes carved into him and metal strips screwed into his skull, and the moment where a man gets his face blown off in slow motion... which, incidentally, he lives through. While there is something oddly beautiful about someone being blown into fragments on board a satellite, it's not a film to take the grandkids to see. Suffice to say, Elysium's gore is the most realistically realised gore I've ever seen in a film.
But while the focus is certainly on the action, there's more than an undercurrent of moral warning. Elysium, at its base, is a film about class and privilege. It shows the consequences of a future where the out-of-touch wealthy have finally achieved what they've always desired: a remote paradise where they can socialise with others like themselves, bask in the myriad benefits that their vast wealth can afford them, and relax far away from the working classes who caused their every problem whilst they suffered down on Earth. They take advantage of miraculous health-beds that remove any disability or disease in a person's body by using them as a means of staying forever young; the poor, meanwhile, have to make do with incredibly overcrowded hospitals with the minimum number of doctors and nurses who cannot afford to spend any time on them.
The proletariats and their employers have grown so far apart that they are literally living on different worlds. The poor get poorer and sicker, the rich live on in wilfully ignorant bliss, justifying their unjustifiable privilege with the disillusioned belief that they have earned the right to not help anyone except themselves. Ta-daa! That's capitalism. Kudos to Blomkamp for creating such a satisfying metaphor. He makes his views on the ruling classes known, too, by cheerfully smashing spacecraft into their perfectly tended lawns. Quite satisfying.
Besides big names Damon and Jodie Foster, some of the best performances in the movie come from relatively unknown actors. Brazilian Wagner Moura is outstanding as the twitchy, unstable Spider, and his emphatic way of delivering lines is quite fun to watch. Diego Luna is wonderful in the short time he's got as the tragic Julio. Previous Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley would be worth casting just for his fantastic South African accent, but he makes a really terrifying villain in Agent C.M. Kruger. It's all enjoyable, fast-paced action but also, notably, it's a film with a point. Personally, I can't wait to see what Neill Blomkamp's still got up his sleeve.
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