Dir: Neill Blomkamp
With: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga
Runtime: 109 minutes
NEILL Blomkamp's satisfying thriller opens to a scene of utter devastation that is not Trafalgar Square after the Scotland-England game. Earth is polluted and ravaged, its citizens left to scavenge to survive. This is the planet as a giant favela. But elsewhere in the universe there is the perfect state of the title, a place where illness has been banished and paradise flourishes. The biggest threat to Elysium are the poor and huddled Earthling masses who want to migrate there.
Like all good science fiction, Blomkamp's tale plugs into and illuminates contemporary concerns. Substitute Mexico and America, Romania and the UK, or Australia and its boat people for Earth and Elysium, and we could be talking Earth 2013.
Besides being on the money with its politics, Blomkamp's picture delivers solid thrills and engaging drama. It is far from perfect, the story is too muddled for that, but like World War Z, Brad Pitt's zombie apocalypse picture that was widely expected to be a flop but turned out to be a hit, Elysium looks like being the other sleeper hit of the summer. Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger had the hype and failed spectacularly to live up to it. Elysium and WWZ, meanwhile, have quietly come up with just enough of the goods.
Critical to the success of both films are their leading men - Pitt in the case of WWZ, and Matt Damon in Elysium as a Mad Max style battler against The Man. As a bonus, Blomkamp's picture has Jodie Foster as Elysium's ruthless defence secretary. Two A-listers, one of whom fares better than the other. For once it is not the usually reliable Foster.
Elysium opens in Los Angeles in 2154. A voiceover fills the audience in on the split worlds and the haves and have not situation. In flashback, we see a young Max and his friend Freya, two orphans who look out for each other. One day, Max promises Freya, they will go to Elysium and live happily ever after.
Cut to years later and the honeyed glow of flashback has been replaced by metal cold reality. As admirers of Blomkamp's four Oscar-nominated District 9 will know, the South African director is a dab hand at urban dystopia and dusty chaos. We catch up with Max as he leaves his hovel and heads to his factory job, first having to queue up for security checks by robot policemen. Over in the hospital where Freya works as a nurse it is fainting room only as the sick try to access the limited care available.
Up on Elysium, all is calm and shiny and quiet. Defence secretary Delacourt (Foster) is patrolling the walls from her high-tech control centre. Foster is one of cinema's great chameleons. Whatever picture she is in she inhabits her role so seamlessly it is never a struggle to believe in her character.
Here, though, there is an irritating blip on the radar in the shape of her accent. It took until at least halfway through the picture to figure out what was going on. At first, she seems to be adopting a seriously bad British villain's accent by way of showing her evil intent. It slowly becomes clear, however, that she is supposed to be a French woman speaking English. Which just goes to show there is such a thing as being too clever sometimes.
Damon's Max is an altogether more straightforward proposition. He is a blue collar worker, a one-time car thief who saw the light. He has friends in the neighbourhood, joshes with the street kids, and would dearly like to renew his friendship with Freya on an old-fashioned date for coffee. But a host of problems stand in their way. As twist follows turn in the story, it becomes clear Max has to keep that promise to Freya to get to Elysium, whatever it takes.
It is a simple enough quest story, which Blomkamp adds to with a sub-plot of political intrigue between Delacourt and the chief executive of the factory (William Fichtner) where Max works. Though each part neatly feeds the other, Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay, makes a meal and a half of showing how everything connects. Add to this mix lots of high-tech babble about downloads and uploads and computer code and it is easy to feel lost at times.
Trust Damon, though, to hold the picture together from first to last. The male equivalent of Foster in being a character actor supreme, Damon can fulfil the requirement for quietly affecting drama at the same time as being a crack action hero. His Jason Bourne is a trained assassin, the product of a slick and secret government programme. Here, Max is more of a make do and mend action hero, a Terminator put together by a Blue Peter presenter.
Sharlto Copley, becoming a Blomkamp regular, does a polished, pantomime villain job as a mercenary for Elysium, while Alice Braga makes the most of her role as a woman in peril. Besides Damon, though, the floor belongs to Blomkamp, a director with a real eye for big screen action with added heart.