Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), orphan and Earthling, was once a legendary car thief. Now he’s just one of the many poor ex-cons trying to go straight and eke out a minimum wage life.
So far, he’s been having a horrid time of it, working at the assembly line of Armadyne Corp, a robotics factory. There aren’t a lot of plum jobs for ex-cons in the sci-fi future of Los Angeles in 2154.
Outre socio-political sci-fi puts me on my guard. All too often, it tends to propagandize rather than tell a good story. That it’s trying to slip an agenda by me makes me suspicious, but director Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9” pulled off the trick of crafting a sci-fi gem about race and prejudice by putting aliens into the blender and setting the thing in South Africa. So I went into this Matt Damon starrer with an open mind, hoping for just some fair to average entertainment.
Surprisingly, “Elysium” delivers the kind of futuristic drama with existential overtones that will definitely catapult it into cult status. Sure it sprawls and meanders into narrative speed bumps and you can likely shelve this one under “sci-fi poverty porn” (it’d fit the bill and overflow it) but this sometimes rambling, sometimes doctrinaire homage to Dick and Heinlein does work. I mean, really. The reason for that is mostly because the social caveats in here are very well executed and un-preachy.
Two things you need to know about the premise of this movie:
One: In 2154, the very wealthy live on a luxurious space station (a Stanford torus, for you OC geeks) called Elysium. Up there, the citizens live in comfort and safety with robotic servants at their beck and call. Being an Elysian also means freedom from disease since their tech has advanced to the point that their “Med-Bays” can cure anything from colic to cancer.
Two: Max and everybody else (i.e the poor) live on an overpopulated, scorched Earth. Oh, and the planet is patrolled and policed by androids under the control of the Elysians. Poverty: even in the future, it sucks.
It’s a total downward spiral for Max when a factory floor accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation, netting him a whopping five days to live. Armadyne Corp’s big boss John Carlyle (William Fichtner) fires him and sends him home with his separation pay: a bottle of painkillers.
Desperate to live, Max turns to his old shady contacts, to an underground operation led by Spider (Wagner Moura), who cuts him a deal, if he can help them hack into an Elysian’s head and get the access codes. How Max gets from being a dying man to being the world’s savior is complicated but assuredly entertaining.
I loved the gritty visuals here, and Earth as a dump so ridden with disease, crime, and poverty that it actually looks like a cross between Payatas (except with more concrete and steel hovels) and the 200-floor structures of AD 40,000’s Mega-Cities (see “Judge Dredd”) is something I can buy.
The poor Earthlings in LA speak mostly a patois of Spanish and English, while the rich Elysians putter about their pools sipping champagne and conversing in French. Later on, we find out that coyotes (read: transporters of illegal immigrants) are still doing their thing, except in space. When you’re building de-familiarized worlds, the clichés are useful. I get that.
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