In the split universe that is Neill Blomkamp's summer action movie "Elysium," the 'haves' live, quite literally, a world above the 'have-nots.' And what the 'haves' have, on their pain-free, protected ring-world space station, is an opulent lifestyle facilitated by jealously guarded technology.
Aboard the titular space colony that is "Elysium," bio-medical scanner/repairer tanning-beds confer near-immortality to the privileged. The security personnel can closely monitor Earthly activities almost anywhere. Humanoid robot police tightly control borders, restricting human movement. And corporate executives rocket about in dark window-tinted space shuttles with Bugatti-coachwork. This is luxury life in the year 2145.
If these seem allegorical to present-day conflicts over universal health care, freedom of information, immigration policy and ubiquitous surveillance, you are not wrong. But writer-director Blomkamp didn't want a heavy social justice message to get in the way of the film's popcorn munch-inspiring action. [See photos from the dystopian sci-fi film "Elysium"]
We spoke with "Elysium" star, Matt Damon who plays the film's protagonist Max, about striking that balance.
"I think like 'District 9,' Neill really loves to inject these themes that have some resonance and relevance to the world that we're living in now," Damon told SPACE.com in a video interview. "It's a story about the haves and have-nots and that’s something that's kind of, I think, in the zeitgeist right now, and it kind of gives the movie its soul."
For Blomkamp, keeping the film's action moving while maintaining its message was a major goal.
"I want to blow things up as much as I want to make films that are about serious topics," says Blomkamp. "The subjects that interest me tend to be large sociological concepts and I like the idea of making films about those concepts in ways that aren't heavy handed or preachy."
Blomkamp and his cast succeed at this. "Elysium" is a very clever movie and you'll want to see it more than once. You will very likely want to part with some of your wealth to own it. In its dystopian future, wealth and the wealthy (far less than 1 percent of the population) are concentrated on a luxury wheel in the sky.
Down on the rough and ruined planet, a good but flawed man, Max (Matt Damon) must find his way to the privileged orbiting citadel in order to save his own life. In the process he will save much more – and, paradoxically, lose much more. [Amazing Space Colony Concepts of the 1970s (Gallery)]
But first he must make it through badass Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley, who starred in Blomkamp’s breakthrough film "District 9." "Elysium's" Kruger is part Terminator, part "Star Wars" bounty hunter, and part ex-Special Forces-turned mercenary.
He personifies unbridled killing technology, ruthlessly applied. And he is scary! Utterly free of any conscience, Kruger is as starkly terrifying as Copley’s "District 9" character Wikus was beguiling and charming. But as with Wikus, Copley injects moments of high comedy into his Kruger within nanoseconds of bloody horror and mayhem.
"It was the hardest character for me, actually, because it was the most removed from my natural personality than anything I've played so far," Copley told SPACE.com. "There was a dark, kind of sadistic humor to Kruger and we did more of that in improve. In the end, Neill has opted to keep him quite lethal with very little touches of the humor."
Copley was cast, in part, for this dichotomous ability. "Even in the most extreme dire situation, there's a natural sardonic humor that comes out of him," says director Blomkamp. "He never, ever plays it straight. I provide the parameters for the character and he turns it into a magnetic performance."
Outrageous explosions, "snarkily-spun" sci-fi tropes, and bloody combat frequently punctuate this summer action picture. But the movie has a strong heart. There are subtle, surprisingly mature love stories: between mother and child; brothers in arms; a deep but platonic friendship. It's a tribute to the excellent cast that they are able to surface the love so that it reads so strong between all the flash-bangs, blood and breakneck chase scenes.
There's also plenty of tech.
"Elysium" is a cautionary tale about what happens if all the good gear winds up closely-held by the elites of society. Ironically, here in our real world, the clear trend has been toward technology as a widely self-proliferating and disruptively democratizing force.
But sometimes, that doesn't happen without a fight: witness ObamaCare vs. the "wealth-o-rati." And ubiquitous tech doesn't come without the possibility of abuses: witness United States' NSA over-reach, Facebook dossier-compilation and Google micro-targeting.
In "Elysium" the fight gets personal. Its paradoxical plot hinges on a lethal, yet life-saving, software download, on the person (Max) who must carry it, and on the powerful woman who craves control of it: Jodie Foster, who portrays 'Delacourt', the 108 year-old protector of the privileged space-paradise, is — in real life — concerned about the current state of Earth's real citizens. "Elysium's" subtle social justice relationship to Blomkamp's earlier social sci-fi movie "District 9" is explored by Foster in this video interview.
"I think like 'District 9,' I think you have a film that is really intelligent, the fantasy elements of it are really intelligent and have a much deeper sociological meaning. But it's a personal story and it's moving," Foster says in "Elysium" and "District 9" in the video. "Both of them have ordinary men, who woke up one morning, one ordinary morning, and their whole life changes."
Aside from Damon and Foster, most of the principal-cast are not American. They are A-list film stars in many other nations, but not well known in the U.S. Their accents, affectations and mannerisms work well to drive home this film's theme of social schism. There's heavenly, perfect "Elysium" and there's hellish everywhere else, where the cauldron of Humanity bubbles and rots; and eventually rebels.
To the longtime space enthusiast (me) Blomkamp's use of a Stanford torus-derived space settlement as an icon of evil is a gross perversion of a great idea. But it works perfectly to tell his story. And that story is important.
As with "District 9's" giant alien mother-ship, Blomkamp persistently hangs the "Elysium" habitat in Earth's sky, tantalizing the groundhogs of Earth in many scenes. They can always see it, but never touch it.
"Elysium's" 22nd century tech is marvelous in the original sense of the word. Of course, it's inconsistent — if you have nanotechnology that heals people in seconds, you don't need big guns to kill them — but who cares? The shuttles are cool and only the nerdiest among us (me) will question their impossible propulsion. ["Elysium" Exo-Skeleton Suits Redefine Ultimate Fighting (Video)]
Blomkamp first-drafted "Elysium" as a sort-of graphic novel. It was a remarkably detailed roadmap for the film, right down to lead character Max's bulked-up, shaved-down, tattooed-all-around appearance. One gets the impression that Blomkamp might have started out to make a funnier, more satirical film, but realized the heart of the story lay in the darkness of human cruelty.
The films R rating is deserved; there's a lot of blood and guns and fisticuffs and swearing of oaths. But "Elysium's" dystopian future is still a long ways off. Younger viewers have time to grow into seeing it and it’s important that they do. This film will remain relevant for a long time to come.
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Dave Brody has been a writer and Executive Producer at SPACE.com since January 2000. He created and hosted space science video for Starry Night astronomy software, Orion Telescopes and SPACE.com TV. A career space documentarian and journalist, Brody was the Supervising Producer of the long running Inside Space news magazine television program on SYFY. Follow Dave on Twitter @DavidSkyBrody.