The Trouble with Elysium

Review by Den Patrick

Elysium is this summer’s Sci-Fi blockbuster from Neill Blomkamp, director of the much loved District 9. Blomkamp had a significantly larger budget to play with this time, along with the star power of Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

It is the year 2154 and the world has become an overcrowded, polluted hell. Los Angeles is no more than sprawling shanty town of epic proportions. Meanwhile, the super rich live on  Elysium, a ring world in a post scarcity society with access to healthcare the likes of which can only be dreamed of.

Max, an ex-con and construction line worker on Earth, needs to reach Elysium within five days, problematic enough given that is the most heavily guarded installation in the solar system. However, Max’s problems are just beginning. Delacourt (Foster), the ruthless head of Elysium’s head of Homeland Security, is not only upping the stakes, but changing the rules of the game.

Elysium provides plenty of bang for its buck. Blomkamp once again shows his flair for annihilating things with a savagery more akin to the horror genre. Androids, and often people, aren’t merely shot; they come apart at their very seams. The design and execution of Elysium, the various shuttles, and the aforementioned androids is beautifully realised with a weathered and beaten up aesthetic which will be familiar to fans of District 9. And the film never lacks for pace. If anything there is a sense a few more seconds could have been rescued from the cutting room floor. Seconds that could have been spent building deeper emotional resonance.

The trouble with Elysium comes not from Sharlto Copely’s oddball villain (he’s too goofy to be truly menacing), or from the seemingly throw away deaths. The trouble with Elysium is that it isn’t really Sci-Fi. It’s an action film dressed up with the furnishings we love so much: ring worlds glittering in space, transports and shuttles straight out of the Halo universe, a variety of ammunition to make Judge Dredd envious, android police men. This is Science Action, rather than Science Fiction. The core of the film is based squarely on the conceit that Max comes into possession of a key, a key that can unlock possibilities for all mankind, not just the wealthy elite.

Having just said that Elysium isn’t Science Fiction I’ll now hold it up to one of SFs golden standards – what does the future of 2154 say about our present? In the states you could argue this is a pro-Medicare metaphor, a metaphor that is as subtle as the Apartheid theme that ran through District 9. Here is the UK, I couldn’t help but think of the way the NHS services are currently being sold off or contracted out. But, health issues aside, Elysium is quite simply a film about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, which is a subject felt increasingly keenly now.

This isn’t so much high concept as high body count SF, a visual feast for the First Person Shooter generation. Elysium would have benefitted from more investment in the characters and a longer running time. Moments of reprieve are needed with a film this kinetic.

Den Patrick is the author of the War Fighting Manuals, the first of which is available now . You can follow @Den­_Patrick  on twitter for more information.