Opening with a familiar swoop over the dirty, swarming city of Los Angeles, teeming with life under the harsh sun, its overpopulation evident in the ramshackle nature of the buildings placed on top of buildings with careless abandon. We are in the year 2154 but little, it appears, has changed. There is an air of neglect in this tumbledown city on the precipice of collapse. Two young orphaned children run beneath the sweltering sun, scrambling playfully through the dangerous ruin of their homeland, stopping only to look to the sky, and to the promised land of Elysium.
Blomkamp’s ability to create a world parallel to our own was a key factor in the success of Alive in Joburg and then District 9. In this film the social composition under examination is the distancing of class, with the rich and powerful living high up in the beautifully realised Stanford Torus of Elysium in Earth’s orbit and the rest of humanity left to survive on the planet. A century and a half or advancement is absent on Earth, with hospitals overflowing and poverty and crime the chief defining factor of the Earthbound. What new technology there is on Earth is primarily to control the population. Robot police patrol the streets while the working class are jostled and oppressed, all the time living with one eye on the sky.
Matt Damon’s Max DeCosta is one of those workers, scraping a (legal) living after too many months in prison in a factory building the ever-present police force. An accident forces him to take desperate measures, to try and reach Elysium to save his life. The thematic hook of one man against an overwhelming and faceless power has echoes of Blade Runner and Silent Running and seeing Blomkamp’s visions continue to evolve on screen one is reminded of the early days of Ridley Scott, with a precision and a fearless immersion in a brave new world.
Like District 9 Elysium conceals a fairly plain narrative beneath layers of visual splendour and a tightly written script. The social commentary is a spark rather than the slow burn throughout here and it is the director’s ability to hold his audience spellbound that a film this familiar feels so new. Sharlto Copley’s brutal mercenary makes for a fun, and fitting villain, himself also under the control of Elysium’s distant rulers, while Jodie Foster’s eager Defence Secretary does her best to put a face on the remote oppression. Damon is terrifically engaging throughout, even through to an ending which is thoroughly inevitable, but nonetheless satisfying.
Visually the film is very strong, with Syd Mead’s futurist concepts influencing the film heavily. Elysium itself is jaw-dropping, with a scale and purpose which is awe-inspiring and works itself into the fabric of the story seamlessly.
Blomkamp’s decision to hold a dark mirror up to today’s world, a fundamental trait of the best science fiction, pays off handsomely. With immigration, overpopulation and a world dazed by the glare of technology orbiting a basic story of survival the result is the best sci-fi film of the year. The director’s honing of his craft, along with the intricacy of his worlds, combine to deliver an exciting and visually stunning film, one which perhaps holds too much to a familiar path, but which is undeniably thrilling.