In the year 2154, we’re told, the rich don’t care about the poor. Nothing new so far. Neill Blomkamp, whose debut film was the alien-apartheid fantasy District 9, pretty much takes this for granted.
His sophomore film, Elysium, is essentially a political metaphor gone fiercely rogue in the physical world. Not only do the rich not give two flying figs about the poor, but they live in a utopian space station in the sky, constantly bathed in heavenly light. Would-be “illegal” visitors—usually Hispanic—are shot down before they reach it, women and children first.
Below, on Earth, the abandoned residents of Los Angeles languish in a dreamily intricate slum that has fallen into apocalyptic steampunk, a world of shit and piss and dirt amid technological marvels. It is as if the trash-sculpture Watts Towers have expanded to encompass the entire city. Blomkamp’s vision, no matter how dystopian, is stubbornly beautiful, just like the most grotesque creations of director Guillermo del Toro.
Somewhere in the middle of this dung heap is Matt Damon as a blond-haired, blue-eyed chulo who’s gone straight after years as a car thief. Cheekily, he’s named Max—a road warrior for a new generation of apocalypse. Max is very, very special, which we know because a nun told him so way back when he was an orphan, and also because he’s played by Matt Damon.
It betrays nothing to tell you Max eventually thumbs a trip to Elysium to upset this hilariously unfair social order, in which the people in the sky can cure every illness imaginable using special machines, but choose not to share even one of these machines with the rampantly leukemic planet Earth. (What’s the harm, one wonders.) Damon travels up in cyborg form, armed to the teeth with the data that could bring down that whole society of Winklevoss clones.
He’s pursued by a sociopathic villain right out of the 1980s B-movie playbook, a nihilistic sociopath with fire in his heart, crazy-big guns and incredible difficulty forming an American “r.”
And, of course, Damon makes this trip not just for vengeance or personal gain, but for the love of a woman, and also to satisfy a flashback sequence in which a pubescent boy and girl declare themselves BFFs using a ballpoint pen. Blomkamp’s cinematic vision may be stunning—a place of wonder that is nonetheless grounded in the sweat stains of actual human beings—but Elysium’s plot and characters are pure Hollywood camp.
But goddamn if it isn’t good, solid, hardworking Hollywood camp—with absolutely brutal, inventive action sequences that include swords, hovercraft, force fields, exploding bullets and acrobatic killer robots.
You’re unlikely to care deeply about the characters in this movie, unless you’re a sucker for sick little girls who speak in moral parables. And beyond a beautifully satirical scene in which Damon’s character gets a little bit sarcastic with a robotic parole officer, you’re probably not going to be in it for the laughs, either.
But the film is suffused with wonder and terrible dread, and no matter how infantile the plot, the dirty world itself is constructed for grown-ups, a recognizable extension of concerns we discover to be our own. It is what a sci-fi epic should be: a fantastical machine fueled by our own dreams and fears, made believable by its absolute devotion to these dreams.
So damn the plot’s torpedoes: Some dude gets his face ripped off and has it healed in a tube. Matt Damon is an unstoppable force for whatever. Everything that is unfair must become fair, the dirty must overcome the clean, and we will have justice the only way we know how to get it: by spending millions of dollars on CGI.