Science fiction presents the opportunity to make commentary in a manner unencumbered by current social and political dogma. South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp did just that in his breakout feature, “District 9,” an allegory for apartheid where Blomkamp postulates that humans will persecute those they consider to be unlike themselves if afforded the chance.
In “Elysium,” the 33-year-old revisits this familiar thesis with a twist.
In 2154, he envisions an escalating gulf between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Safety and comfort for the “haves” is provided on Elysium, an enormous floating space station. Ensconced in their lovely McMansions, Elysium’s residents enjoy idyllic surroundings and, even better, each home possesses a medical machine that cures disease and heals injury.
Outside threats to the community are dealt with by Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium’s ruthless secretary of homeland security.
Back on earth the masses eke out a meager existence. They toil in factories, live in huts outfitted with minimal indoor plumbing, or, if more prosperous, in dilapidated homes, apparently leftover from the 1970s.
Matt Damon portrays Max, the film’s hero, an ex-con whose sense of humor isn’t appreciated by earth’s robot police. Having left behind his life as a car thief, Max is persecuted by an unsympathetic system. He lives and works in Los Angeles, a location shot on the outskirts of Mexico City, and depicted as a crumbling ghetto where the poorest speak Spanish, and those in charge speak English.
Lacking automated healing machines, earth’s injured or sick depend upon the city’s neglected hospitals where they are subjected to painful outdated treatments; i.e. surgery or setting broken bones. After receiving an unwarranted beating from the robot police, Max finds himself in the emergency room where he is treated by Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga), mother to an adorable little girl stricken with leukemia.
At work, Max’s cruel supervisor orders him into a perilous situation that causes Max to receive a lethal dose of radiation. No pretense is made at keeping Max comfortable, but a robot doctor drops pills at Max’s feet and informs him that catastrophic organ failure will ensue within five days, followed by death.
Hoping to save himself, Max reconnects with his old cohort Spider (Wagner Moura), a local crime kingpin. In exchange for undertaking a dangerous, but righteous mission that will grant everyone on earth admission to Elysium, Max will be transported to the space station where he hopes to cure his radiation poisoning and help Frey’s sick daughter using one of Elysium’s numerous healing machines.
The heavy-handed social commentary espouses socialism, world government and mandatory top-drawer health care for all, regardless of resources or system capacity.
The audience’s implied contract for Blomkamp’s lecture on North America’s relatively privileged state is that he will entertain and enlighten us. Blomkamp fails his part of the bargain by presenting us with flat dialog, vanilla characters and straight-ahead action. Whether you agree or disagree with his thesis, watching “Elysium” is only slightly more riveting than considering the source of newly collected fuzz in your bellybutton.