Blowing up the people smugglers


Elysium (MA). Director: Neill Blomkamp. Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna. 109 minutes

Blomkamp is a blockbuster filmmaker with a social conscience. In his previous film, District 9, an alien invasion morphed into a vast (in)humanitarian crisis when the new arrivals were forced to live in slum-like conditions outside apartheid-era Johannesburg. The South African filmmaker's Hollywood follow-up Elysium is set in a dystopian future where the gap between rich and poor has been exacerbated by ecological disaster; now the elite one per cent live in a snap-sealed space-bound paradise called Elysium, while the impoverished 99 per cent remain below on a polluted and overpopulated earth, in crowded, decrepit cities and toiling in dangerous blue collar jobs.

These are extremely good, issues-based sci-fi premises that in both instances Blomkamp spends too quickly. District 9 used a documentary format in its first ten minutes to spell out its most interesting idea, which was a comment on how we treat the refugees who arrive among us. Elysium is even quicker to spill the beans; within its opening seconds it has told its audience via bold captions everything that it needs to know about this world; of the elevation of the rich literally beyond the reach of the rest. It then progresses to a reasonably engaging but straightforward action-driven story, that draws some obvious moral points from its potent premise.

Its hero is ex-con Max (Damon), who is compelled by circumstances to enlist the services of a people smuggler, Julio (Luna), to try to get him to Elysium. To achieve this he must overcome the aggressive defenses employed by sinister bureaucrat Delacourt (Foster), head of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (another throwback to apartheid-era South Africa), which is charged with protecting Elysium from earthling invasions. In particular, Max must evade CCB foot soldier Krueger, a violent and technologically advanced maniac played gleefully by Copley.

Like District 9, Elysium, once the headier concepts are out of the way, is loudly and proudly an action film. Blomkamp and his team have clearly had fun coming up with futuristic gadgetry and increasingly devastating weapons (the violence in Elysium is pretty brutal at times) to be used by heroes and villains alike. The action sequences, and Elysium itself (which lines the inner rim of a massive wheel-shaped satellite), are impressively realised. There are some nice, blackly-comic digs at the interactions between humans and technology (see Max trying to reason with his robotic parole officer); but the exploration of the central, social theme is less than robust.

Heavy-handed is a better description. The film draws pointed comparison between the insufficient health care on earth — where hospitals are overcrowded and ill-equipped — and the miraculous healing capabilities available to the wealthy citizens of Elysium. Herein lies Max's motivation for reaching Elysium; he is grievously ill following a workplace accident (such is the lot of the 99 per cent) and only on Elysium can his life be saved. A childhood friend, Frey (Braga), whose daughter is dying of cancer, helps to evoke a more selfless dimension in Max's quest. But amid the explosions and bodies being blown apart it's hard to take these more earnest points very seriously.

As social commentary Elysium clearly has in mind any country that receives 'unwanted' arrivals of refugees. But it seems particularly timely in Australia, where the political response to asylum seekers who arrive by boat is simply to stop them. Most of those whom Julio helps to reach Elysium are in desperate need; the fact that they presumably have the financial resources to enlist his services does not make them any less desperate. The response by the bureaucrat Delacourt, to blow the smugglers' ships out of the air before they reach Elysium, and violently apprehend any individuals who get through, certainly takes the 'stop the boats' mentality to its extreme.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Elysium, Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Neill Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Hope "Bogan Nation" watches!

Val | 15 August 2013  

Australia: where fact and fiction merge into one nightmare of existence.

Alex Njoo | 15 August 2013  

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