The message is simple and direct, but dwelling on its simplicity misses the point. Just because we know what Elysium is trying to say doesn’t preclude the power and elegance with which it says it. Like director Nail Blomkamp’s District 9, you can take Elysium at face value or look for something more. It does equally well either way, and the assured confidence with which it goes about its task doesn’t short change either end.
Ostensibly, it’s about a future society in which evil elites live in a giant luxury satellite in the sky while the squalid underclass struggles to survive on the planet below. It’s about how the underclass schemes to fight back and what happens when one of their number suddenly has nothing left to lose. It’s about good guys vs. bad guys, epic cyborg fights, and the way cool guns can blow up even cooler robots in the coolest possible ways. Matt Damon plays the hero, an anonymous schlub upon whom destiny pivots when he finds himself in the wrong place at the exact right time. We follow his painful efforts to break into that satellite in the sky and the chaos he unleashes in the process. You can eat your popcorn, enjoy the well-crafted rollercoaster ride, and happily let Elysium thrive as the best blockbuster of the summer.
Beneath that lies Blomkamp’s larger point, as easy to read as the fight scenes. The haves lord it over the have-nots, and that fundamental inequality cannot hold without blood being spilled. Elysium seethes with anger at the universal injustice: at those born on third base thinking they’d hit a triple and the contempt they hold for those who they perceive as lessers. That message looms larger than ever in this brave new century and those who dismiss it as Hollywood propaganda do so at their peril. Blomkamp executes the notion with breathtaking skill, but he really has nothing more complex on his mind.
The complexities – the real genius of this superb movie – come in the details. We see a world not tailor-made for a revolutionary change, one in which the reality of 150 more years has had time to seep into the corners. These people have been dealing with this for quite some time before we get to them. They’re used to the seething crowds, the casual brutality, the drudgery of day after day after day devoid of even the barest hopes. The good guys lost a long time again, and now the survivors just struggle to get by. Elysium plunges us into that world with deceptive ease, then lets us run around in it a while before turning the plot loose.
It’s a heady rush, delivered elegantly and efficiently with the skill of a master at work. We drink in the surroundings like a man dying of thirst, eager to see whatever the director has for us next, while acknowledging the social commentary almost in passing. Few films of this ilk hold so much interest merely in the presentation. To do anything more as Blomkamp does – with storytelling, with characterization, with an observation of the human condition—feels like a minor miracle.
His best co-conspirator is the same one he had on District 9. Sharlto Copley, the quietly monstrous bureaucrat in that earlier film, returns as a much louder monster here. He plays the upper class’s agent on Earth, a kind of human Terminator who disposes of the elites’ messy problems. We don’t know where he stands at first; only gradually does his evil bubble to the surface. By then, we can’t take our eyes off him, much like the rest of the film, and the further we travel with him, the more incredible his presence becomes.
Damon holds his own against him, finding a new way to repackage his nice-guy leading man shtick into another solid performance. Unfortunately Jodie Foster does far less well as the satellite’s head of security. She’s clearly bored by the whole affair – by acting in general if the rumors are true – and her lackluster performance hits the film’s few sour notes. Thankfully, Copley’s ready to pick up the slack and with Blomkamp’s sharp script in hand, it hardly matters whether or not a key actor checks out.
The rest of the film is a revelation, not quite as surprising as District 9 but no less refreshing for its authority and verve. The sophomore slump has failed to materialize, leaving us with not only the best film of the summer, but one of the best of 2013 thus far. This is the product of a major filmmaking talent, well on his way to joining the likes of Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro. That science fiction remains his chosen genre is a blessing to the medium, and another sign that it holds far more potential than its short-sighted detractors can fathom. You won’t see a better example of what it can do anytime soon.