Matt Damon can save almost any film for me, and the perfectly
competent, entirely predictable Elysium may
be where “almost” kicks in. Like most summer action movies — from Man of Steel to World War Z — it has an intriguing premise that gets
lost mid-way through in the barrage of special effects and action. Elysium was written and directed by South African-born Neill Blomkamp,
who also made the much smaller, more sharply dystopian District 9, with its sci-fi allegory of apartheid. Even here his skewering
social observations shine through, at least in the early scenes.
The world he creates is today’s run amok. The late 21st
century, as the opening on-screen text tells us, brought “disease, pollution
and overpopulation.” (What, no climate change?) When we settle down in 2154 Los Angeles, the place looks like
dusty war-torn Iraq. Working-class guys like Max (Damon) struggle on assembly
lines for peanuts and can only dream of reaching Elysium, a shining,
climate-controlled space-ship where the wealthy and beautiful live, and where every
disease can be cured instantly by a machine that zaps your sickly atoms back
into place. Talk about a widening gap between classes.
When he’s radiated nearly to death in an industrial accident, Max has to
find a way to Elysium to be cured — and because the film has a formulaic action
plot, naturally he’s out to save the
life of a small child too. But before the easy-to-anticipate ending, the
film offers some piercing and occasionally witty social commentary.
Here are the top ways Elysium‘s
future resonates with reality today, making the film momentarily smarter than
most summer action:
1. Health care. This is what happens if you don’t listen to
Obama, and the gap between the covered and uncovered grows. While Elysium is
health-care heaven, Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), coincidentally
the mother of the sick little girl, is a nurse in a hospital as overcrowded and
as quick to turn suffering people out of their beds as any venal HMO today.
2. Computer malfunctions. In the future they can reconstruct
sick cells, but apparently they still can’t make a data transfer foolproof. At
a crucial moment. when someone gets a “Scrambled” error message on a
screen, we know exactly how that person feels. When the ruthless cabinet
minister (Jodie Foster) on Elysium blocks all communication signals on Earth,
it’s as if your internet connection went down and the cable company has you on
hold again. (Speaking of technical failures, as the icy Minister Delacourt, Foster has a clipped, unidentified but
South-African sounding accent that looks conspicuously looped in after the
fact; what’s that about?)
3. Phones attached to your ears. Literally attached. The
wealthy wear little white rectangles behind their ears to communicate, and
you can also have computer data streamed right into your brain. Beyond Bluetooth — it’s as if Google
glass had the good sense to migrate to less obvious spots on your head.
4. In the future, civil service workers are robots with
automated voice menus; listen carefully because their options have changed.
When a frustrated Max offers a smart-ass answer, the robotic voice asks:
“Are you being sarcastic, and/or abusive?” That would be a very useful question today.
You can see the robotic question at :34 into this trailer: