Review: Elysium ("Explode those intergalactic illegals, Old Sport")

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In Neill Blomkamp’s action sci-fi Elysium the wealthy are refugees of earth, new inhabitants of a sexy manmade star that looms like a locket above Matt Damon’s favela home. Damon is Max, an earthling with a checkered past now working towards a ‘quiet life of desperation’ as a factory worker. His workplace, like the rest of earth, utilizes a no tolerance policy, so when an accident sends him into a fatal sickness he’s dismissed with drugs to ease his last days. This kicks the movie into gear, with Max risking everything for a ride to one of utopia’s cure-all machines. But for that he has to become a cyborg—a junkyard Robocop strong enough to fight the future’s universal soldiers (led by District 9 star Sharlto Copley).

Jody Foster is Elysium’s ultra-conservative border enforcer; she’s so severe her officers grimace at her marching orders. They blow ships full of sick illegals out of the sky and still bristle at her commands: with their education and prestige they haven’t realized the human cost of their way of life? That directorial call is about as silly as the one that approved Foster’s accent: she sounds like Leo DiCaprio’s Gatsby gave her dialect lessons.

Life on earth is a disaffecting, solitary ordeal, but Max is relentless, saying “I’m not dead yet” and “this won’t kill me.” His will alone makes him the accidental savior of mankind—ok, so his abs also help. Yet, you identify with Max the way you might The Bishop on a chessboard; he's a bit of an object, too. Blomkamp spares us the antics of John Carter-styled virtual reality to give us clues that survival demands teamwork not heroism. In the film’s best scene, a sick little girl sees Max’s robo-wounds and gives him her bandage as she tells a friendship-tale about a hippo and a meerkat. He resists her sweetness.

District 9’s allegory for apartheid is a Zen Koan compared to Elysium’s interconnected checklist of societal woes. At first you think Blomkamp is on about the exploitation of the worker and then the dehumanization of the immigrant, but the film finally spends the most narrative time on universal health care. This might provoke some predictable conservative fire-breathing but it won’t likely encourage meaty debates because the film is beset with enough wonky stepping stones to undermine its use as a political rabble rouser. As activism Sicko is more effective, but Sicko will never have the reach of an action packed sci-fi starring Jason Bourne. Regardless, I’d like to think Blomkamp and Michael Moore could make like the hippo and the meerkat...no fat joke intended.

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