On the eve of the release of their thrilling, politically significant sci-fi drama Elysium, writer/director Neill Blomkamp and star Matt Damon adopted a curious stance as to what the film represents. The premise, clear since the first trailer, is that the Earth of the 22nd century is diseased and overpopulated, and the elite have retreated to a cushy space station. The good guy is from down here, the bad guys are from up there, and moviegoers in the age of Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t need much more to connect the dots. Yet Damon and Blomkamp claim no intention to push political buttons or pretend there’s any message to take away. How could that line up with a film whose success seemed tethered to potential heavy-handedness?
The short answer is that they’re messing with us. Elysium is, at its core, a mind-expanding, sledgehammer-subtle meditation on the haves and have-nots, and makes no effort to conceal its cruel new world’s roots in the signature anxieties of the contemporary left. Through the eyes of earthbound ex-con Max Da Costa (Damon), we’re presented a world beset by poverty, workforce exploitation, and cold (as in literally robotic) authoritarianism. A trip to a squalid hospital underlines the tragedy of a future in which fantastical “med-pod” technology hovers callously above those who need it most, and one wrenching sequence shows how space-age coyotes help shipfuls of sick people risk their lives for the remote chance of getting access to it. Even Blomkamp’s rhythmic twinning of Los Angeles’ infinite slums and the lush Elysium, a terraformed ring mere miles wide, presents the 1 percent as a coy visual motif.
These issues seem explicitly political because that’s how we’re conditioned to view them. But in pushing capitalism to a dire but ideologically plausible extreme—a tactic in the tradition of the best serious science fiction—Blomkamp has more accurately oriented Elysium with a moral point of view, emotionally accessible even to those who might reject its ideas in plainer terms.
Those preferring to call it propaganda aren’t without footholds: The Elysium habitat is represented almost entirely by a power-hungry Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster, often doing an accent) and an affectless CEO (William Fichtner), both shallowly villainous in ways that preclude any glimpse at how reasonable Elysians feel about the suffering they’ve left behind. (Their ineffectual but comparatively humane president suggests Blomkamp may not feel that such people exist.) But the film’s one-sidedness doesn’t dilute its moral clarity, and some viewers who want to disagree with it may find themselves changing the subject in the parking lot and thinking hard on the drive home.
What Blomkamp and Damon may really be getting at in their deflection, though, is that a film’s setting is not the same as its story. After an industrial accident leaves Da Costa with days to live and every reason to rush the gates, Elysium steps beyond the dystopic finger-wagging into burly sci-fi spectacle largely independent of its own themes, and the results are very often glorious. Blomkamp asserts his mastery of the grit and imagination, if not the nuance, that defined his Oscar-nominated debut District 9, parading sick space-age weaponry and biotech through visceral battles against the best hired guns Elysian money can buy. (Sharlto Copley, so piteous in District 9, is the Villain of the Summer as the deceptively unhinged ringleader Kruger.) It’s a humanist film, sure, but it’s the sort of humanist film where dudes in lean mechanical exoskeletons whale on each other.
But Elysium’s most respectable trick is how these eye-popping sequences never feel like the forced set pieces we expect from films this size. That’s not to reflect on Blomkamp’s style—occasionally video game-like to groaning effect—but on his good taste in establishing the narrative momentum ignored by most tentpole genre filmmakers, the best of whom still trend toward repetition and safe bets. Elysium moves quickly and feeds on disrupted expectations, as Da Costa and Kruger’s escalating cat-and-mouse game causes shifts in their strategy and motivations. Even the handful of plot holes are there for the right reason, which is to keep everything barreling along so the emotional stakes are still sky-high when it starts slowing to an inevitable end.
Contrast this with last month’s Pacific Rim, which held its climate change allegory closer to its vest but otherwise offered a morning cartoon take on Top Gun punctuated by battles of interchangeable length and scale, with too-scarce detours into Guillermo del Toro’s own imagination. Even if, as Blomkamp suggests, we’re all just imagining Elysium to be laudable and totally ballsy, it’d still be the most satisfying sci-fi movie since the last time he made one.