South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp caught the world’s attention with his startling debut movie, District 9, a satirical sci-fi splatterfest that delivered gob-smacking effects on a trim budget and gave us a dystopian version of the present. Elysium, his first Hollywood movie, has a much bigger budget and an even grimmer view of the future.
The setting is 2154 and the gap between rich and poor couldn’t be more pronounced. The 1% live in the ultimate gated community, Elysium, a vast orbiting space station with rolling lawns, gleaming mansions and ultra-high-tech medicine. The 99% live in squalid shantytowns back on Earth, their lives controlled by brutal robot police and officious robot bureaucrats. Those desperate enough to pay people traffickers for the chance to escape to Elysium in ramshackle unofficial shuttles invariably get shot down by the station’s Homeland Security as ‘undocumented aliens’.
The parallels with the present day are obvious and the satirical intent is clear. But Blomkamp isn’t simply making an in-your-face polemic about inequality; he’s also making a box-office-friendly action thriller with a familiar race-against-time plot and a heroic protagonist hoping to save the day.
The hero is Matt Damon’s shaven-headed, heavily tattooed Max, a factory worker in teeming Spanish-speaking Los Angeles who receives a lethal dose of radiation that gives him five days to live unless he can reach Elysium and its miracle health care.
His only shot at a shuttle seat is to kidnap William Fichtner’s slimy tycoon for local crime kingpin Spider (Brazilian star Wagner Moura) and steal the information in his head. It’s a suicidal mission that sees him plugged into a strength-enhancing exoskeleton and pits him against Elysium’s scheming Defence Secretary, an icy Jodie Foster, and her ruthless enforcer, Kruger, played by District 9 star Sharlto Copley, a seemingly unstoppable mercenary who is barely put off his stride when a grenade explodes in his face.
That grotesque moment recalls some of District 9’s lurid gross-out gore. For the most part, though, Blomkamp has toned down his earlier film’s body horror in favour of more conventional thrills, but he handles the shootouts and slugfests with panache, and his tale of haves and have nots remains a striking and thought-provoking parable, even if it doesn’t fully add up.
Released in cinemas from Wednesday 21st August.
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