A man on the run from the authorities. In his possession, a bunch of files that threaten to destabilise governments, expose corruption, and have far-reaching implications for every man, woman and child on the planet. But until the inevitable Edward Snowden movie, we have to make do with this, Neil Blomkamp's Elysium which arrives on our shores in terrifyingly timely fashion. The Orwellian vans that have been bundling immigrants into backs of vans whilst giving realtime updates of their actions, and implacable androids (sorry - enforcers of the ominously euphemistically named 'Schedule 7') attempting to intimidate the press may not seem quite as bleak as the Los Angeles of 2154 depicted in Blomkamp's film, but are surely events worthy of an expository prologue, were the film to have one.
Four years and a 283% budget increase after the acclaimed District 9, a cogent and moving film that portrayed illegal aliens as literally that, Neill Blomkamp has gilded the lily, making Elysium a bigger, faster, noisier, and more accessible follow-up. The message though is still cut from the same cloth as its predecessor; the rich, privileged, and white live on Elysium - a gigantic Kubrickian rotating disc of a space station (imagine a low-orbit Hamptons) - where they have access to pools, champagne and 'med-pods' - one-man capsules that are literally capable of restoring life. Meanwhile back on over-populated and polluted Earth, the poor and ethnically diverse live in squalor, scraping by, and at the mercy of patrolling robots - their narrow-context programming prohibiting any reasonable form of communication or debate. Amongst these disenfranchised is Max (Damon) a petty criminal attempting the straight and narrow, and a worker at the local 'bot assembly line. Up in Elysium, inexplicably French Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Foster) plans a coup to overthrow its government, but the code that will reboot Elysium (and in turn citizenship and privilege) is intercepted by Max. Thus essentially, Elysium, much like District 9, becomes a fairly formulaic chase-movie; what elevates it above the standard fare, is Blomkamp's extraordinary attention to detail and feel for set-pieces that consecutively and relentlessly cannonball into one another, ensuring a breathlessly adrenalined ride.
Undoubtedly, personal politics will affect whether the movie sits well with viewers. It'll either come across as heavy-handed, namby-pamby, Guardian-reading, miso-soup quaffing Liberal nonsense, or an important work of social commentary that questions and warns of elitism, authoritarianism, segregation and prejudice, and indeed, there's not a whole lot of wiggle-room in the movie's 109 minutes to develop any more detailed form of debate. This is a great shame and one of Elysium's biggest failings. Somewhere there's a longer cut that expands the role of Elysium's population to more than just anonymous, poor-hating cut-outs, develops Max's relationship with regional nurse Frey (Braga) beyond slo-mo, wailing-woman-scored pop-promo montage, and gives flesh to Foster's one-dimensional, suited über-bitch Delacourt. That said, the frantic pacing that threatens to derail the first half of Elysium makes for a incessantly actioned and plotted second act, Copley as the sleeper-agent Kruger is jalaba-fillingly chilling, and WETA and ILM's digital trickery is predictably artfully seamless. As to whether Blomkamp has merely made District 10, well, perhaps, but I'm not sure it matters. Movies of this genre dismay so routinely, sampling one that's been intelligently and perceptively crafted, that has something thought-provoking and provocative to say, is becoming more and more like that scene in Soylent Green when Edward G. Robinson eats his first apple in decades. Sometimes, it's the aspiration that counts.