On the one hand “Elysium” is the last of this year’s summer blockbusters, the new Matt Damon star vehicle and the Hollywood debut by South African director Neill Blomkamp, acclaimed for his debut aliens-among-us feature “District 9.” On the other, this is a political propaganda film so stark and simplistic in its depiction of the triumph of the proletariat over the capitalist bourgeoisie that even Joseph Stalin would wince. Matt Damon, working-class hero, fights off robots and evil mercenaries to bring affordable health care to the galaxy.

The year is 2054, and the rich — as a voice-over informs us — have fled an overpopulated, trashed Earth for an orbiting space station, Elysium, where they can maintain their McMansion-and-swimming-pool lifestyle far from the huddled masses. Think of it as the ultimate gated community. Refugees board ramshackle shuttles in an attempt to bring their children to a better future in Elysium, but they are mercilessly terminated by missiles and robots on the orders of defense secretary Delacourt, as played by Jodie Foster, who’s way off form here, playing her character like some caricature of Condoleezza Rice crossed with the Wicked Witch of the West.

Director Neill Blomkamp
Run Time 109 minutes
Language English

Damon plays a poor blue-collar schmuck (and former criminal) named Max who works in a factory owned by one of the off-world yuppie scum, making the very robots that will police and terrorize the poor. After he’s injured in an industrial accident involving a dose of radiation that will become lethal in five days, he decides to get some payback; with the help of a local gang leader named Spider (Wagner Moura) he gets fitted out with a high-powered exoskeleton with which he can fight off the robots and force his way onto Elysium. There’s also his childhood flame Frey (Alice Braga), who’s a single mom with a sick kid, and only Elysium has the medical technology to save her, but rogue operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley, from “District 9”) is ordered by Delacourt to take Max out.

“Elysium” is certainly one of the freshest looking sci-fi films in a long while, with its vision of a parched, shantytown L.A. patrolled by merciless robot cops with monitor cameras for heads, recording everything they see as potential evidence. Of course, so many robots mean no discernible employment for the humans, the mass of whom seem to be living in squalor. Workers who do have jobs are abused by their managers on the factory line, while their bosses wear masks to avoid breathing their scummy employees’ germs.

The social critique is deployed gracelessly, with the us-vs.-them certainty of agitprop. It doesn’t help that the film is straitjacketed into the same three-act nonsense as usual, with its hero the classic One Man beloved of Hollywood trailers. Deckard in “Blade Runner,” O’Niel in “Outland,” Ripley in “Alien” — these were real working-class heroes who didn’t have to be the freaking savior of the world; lord knows just making a difference is hard enough.

Worst of all is the film’s denouement in which — spoiler alert, but check your IQ if you can’t already guess as much — Max declares humankind free at last, and the wretched masses all jump in their shuttles and head to Elysium. Presumably whatever process of despoilation and unsustainable population growth wrecked the Earth would do the same there soon enough.

  • Jack

    Elysium the last of the summer blockbusters that didn’t come to Japan as usual. Maybe they’ll come by next summer.