Director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his audacious debut District 9 hasn’t quite the same edge or freshness, but it’s still a well-crafted, entertaining piece of sci-fi with enough political subtext about healthcare to upset the American right.
In the future, the Earth is massively overpopulated and polluted. To maintain their way of life, the rich elite dwell on a gigantic, luxurious space station called Elysium. The rest of humanity remains on Earth where life is very tough, particularly for those who need medical treatment. On Elysium are medical pods that can cure any ill, but such technology is prohibited on Earth.
When reformed petty criminal Max (Matt Damon) gets radiation poisoning in an accident at the robot factory where he works, he is given five days to live. With nothing left to lose, he agrees to assist a criminal resistance in exchange for help breaking into Elysium where he can be cured. To do this, he grafts a cybernetic exoskeleton to his body so that 1) he doesn’t keel over and die in the interim, and 2) he can fight the robots and cybernetic agents of the elite. One agent in particular called Kruger (Sharlto Copely) is exceedingly nasty and complicates matters by kidnapping Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga) and her terminally ill daughter. Complicating matters further is a conspiracy within the political elite on Elysium involving their military leader Delacourt (Jodie Foster) that could unravel the entire system and bring about revolution.
Performances are all fine (particularly Copely who is very scary), but Max’s transformation into a kind of cybernetic messiah ought to have more emotional punch than it does. Instead, the plot becomes increasingly predictable, especially in the final act. The film is admittedly exciting, and the special effects are fantastic, but a little more work on the script could have rendered it great rather than merely good. All that said, Blomkamp has a great visual eye, and with adjusted expectations the film delivers the goods.
Politically this is surprisingly bold stuff for Hollywood. The American healthcare allegories are crystal clear, and for anyone like me who is heartily sick of right wing American ravings about “socialised medicine”, this is a powerful affirmation of why healthcare for all is so important. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with basic human compassion. It is a social responsibility and therefore should be funded by all for the benefit of all, not for the benefit of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. That message may be delivered with oversimplified belligerence but nuance be damned. Every so often films ought to get angry, and this is an issue worth getting angry about.
I should probably add the usual warning about swearing and violence for those who appreciate such things, but nothing seemed inappropriate given the context. In the end Elysium isn’t the great film I was hoping for, but it is certainly a good one.