Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” the number one movie in America last weekend, is a sci-fi practically made for progressives. That might not be what Blomkamp intended, but anyone who is concerned about health care, immigration reform, and climate change is going to love this movie.
“Elysium” opens in the year 2154, on a ruined Earth covered in deserts, in the hovels of what’s left of Los Angeles, now a sprawling dustbowl favela. The ultra-wealthy have fled the planet, building a “habitat” in Earth orbit called Elysium. There, they enjoy perfect health, pristine air and water, actual living plants, elaborate estates, hyper-advanced technology that connects their brains to a future Internet, and a socialist utopia of sorts ruled by a giant computer -- naturally, with a few human figureheads at its controls, or so they think.
Overhead, a “Scanner Darkly”-like surveillance system watches every living person on Earth through automated face and DNA recognition. Droids police the citizenry and dispense justice, and everyone dreams of one day getting a ticket to Elysium.
The story focuses on Matt Damon’s character Max, who grows up in the sprawling, festering sore that is new Los Angeles. Scenes showing the living conditions were largely shot in and around Mexico City, and much of the footage was “unaffected” by visual tricks, according to Blomkamp.
As a teen and young man, Max stole cars for underground gangs, but he reformed as an adult and landed a straight job for an Elysium defense contractor, run by actor William Fichtner as John Carlyle, an elite CEO who lives off-world. The working conditions are unforgiving and very unsafe, and he’s forced to put up with a boss who threatens to fire him after a robot police officer breaks his arm.
This leads to Max eating a massive dose of radiation on the job one day, and a chilling droid medic delivers a grim prognosis: he has only five days to live.
Like many on this future Earth, ravaged by poverty, disease, climate change, and massive overpopulation, they are desperate for any kind of health care, so the people of the Los Angeles favelas essentially launch their own space program, sending bootleg, scrapped-together shuttles full of undocumented immigrants into Elysium airspace.
These “illegals,” as the citizens of Elysium know them, are for the most part killed en route or captured and deported on the orders of a cold, unflinching Jodie Foster, the habitat’s defense secretary. But every now and then, one of them manages to get to a “health pod” before they’re captured, curing whatever ailment or injury that person might have.
When Damon gets his death sentence, he sets out to find his way to Elysium for one of these health pods, and encounters a childhood friend along the way with a daughter who has late-stage leukemia. That sets up the rest of the plot (I haven’t ruined the vast majority, promise), which sees Damon on a mission that could make everyone a citizen of Elysium, giving them access to the life-saving health pods and plentiful resources the rich had been hoarding all for themselves.
What plays out within that framework is absolutely thrilling, at times very violent, and a constantly bleak reminder of the choices today’s societies face and what kind of future we may inadvertently leave to future generations. The film does not specifically talk about climate change, depicting new Los Angeles with giant trash pyres and smokestacks aplenty, but the lingering shots of Earth from Elysium feature nothing but brown desert, offering a not-so-subtle hint as to how it got so bad for humanity.
If it wasn’t clear already, I’m absolutely recommending you go see this film on the big screen, especially if these are real issues you care about today. For my money, “Elysium” is the best sci-fi I’ve seen in years and easily my favorite movie in 2013 so far.
It will make you flinch -- I yelped and hooted several times during some of the intense action scenes -- but the conclusion more than salves any trauma you might endure witnessing a succession of scenes with sometimes very graphic violence, including one brief moment that’s particularly gory.
That in mind, my hat particularly goes off to Sharlto Copley as Kruger, star of Blomkamp’s last film “District 9” and easily the most menacing villain in a sci-fi since Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative in Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.”
Blomkamp, who grew up watching “Star Wars” and reading American sci-fi in the slums of Johannesburg, told The Huffington Post that he did not want to take very many guesses at how things are going to change almost 150 years from now.
Reflecting on the film, that seems like a smart move. After all, his speculative future could be way off -- the torrent of sorrowful articles about how wrong Stanley Kubrick was with “2001: A Space Odyssey” comes to mind.
Instead, Blomkamp explained that “Elysium” is “not speculative sci-fi,” and that he specifically wrote it to key into modern trends and technology, then stretching them to their logical extremes.
That effort is obvious in his final product, which ties these very pressing modern issues into a thrilling sci-fi action movie.
My one complaint is that there’s not much background on the villain Kruger and defense secretary Delacourt, who really steal the show, but each key player in the story still seems to embody important, many times fatal flaws in humanity today. That’s what really stuck with me.
Put bluntly, “Elysium” is a film that I believe pretty much any progressive will want to see more than once. It’s that good.