Universal Healthcare Soldier
When someone comes straight out of the trap and makes a brilliant, brilliant film at the first attempt, you're naturally delighted, but also perhaps a little wary: could they have peaked too soon? How can they live up to the weight of expectation thus created? This was kind of how I felt when Neill Blomkamp announced himself to the world with District 9 four years ago: one of the great SF movies of the 21st century. Now he has returned with Elysium, a film which – if we're honest – perhaps cleaves a little too closely to District 9 in terms of its content, theme, imagery and style.
On the other hand, this is a major studio release with a big budget and A-list stars, and an accordingly conventional feel in places: which is to say that in places it quotes liberally from the Big Book of SF Cliches, starting with the voice-over explaining how the world went to rack and ruin in the latter part of the 21st century. By the mid 2150s anyone with money and sense has left the planet and is resident on Elysium, a space habitat in Earth orbit, where they all live the life of Riley with swimming pools and non-stop garden parties. Down below on Earth, of course, no-one has even seen a cucumber sandwich in decades, with the majority of the population trapped in vast, squalid slums while a lucky few toil away in degrading, menial jobs. The proles are policed by brutal robot enforcers, backed up by the occasional human operative.
Anyway: our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon, who – bemusingly – was only offered the part after Eminem turned it down), a petty crook turned factory worker. Once he had dreams of moving to Elysium himself along with his friend Frey (Alice Braga), but now he has accepted that it's just not going to happen and his life is essentially worthless. However, receiving a fatal dose of radiation in an industrial accident leads Max to reconsider this – he has only days to live, unless he can avail himself of the miraculous medical assistance available up on Elysium. But how to get there? Hooking up with an old pal who still has underworld connections, Max agrees to take on the dangerous job of stealing the contents of the brain of a top Elysium tycoon, in return for which he will be smuggled up to the Orbital.
It's a lot less like Inception than it sounds, I promise. What follows is somewhat complex, mainly due to the political machinations of Elysium's icy security chief (Jodie Foster) and the violent excesses of her chief agent (Sharlto Copley giving another eye-catching performance), and not without a few improbabilities along the way. But in the end, in many ways it adheres to the District 9 template, in that it is a serious, good-looking SF movie with striking visuals, fun gadgets and technology, and a nice line in violent mayhem. What's missing is the black humour and the wit and invention of the earlier movie – convoluted though the story gets, the actual throughline in terms of characters arcs is very straightforward, and I guessed the ending about halfway through (and it isn't even as if I sit there trying to anticipate these things).
I don't want to be too hard on Elysium as it is a proper SF movie for grown-ups, not a remake, a reboot, a sequel, or too obviously derivative of any other movie in particular: and that really does make it quite distinctive these days. (It's also arguably the first really good cyberpunk movie in ages, long after Hollywood seemed to have given up on the subgenre and moved on.) The production designs are beautiful and the technology, on the whole, convincing – although Copley's pocket force-field generator seemed to me to be a little too Star Trek. And central to the advertising, though not really essential to the story, is the cyborg exoskeleton into which Max is plumbed quite early on. I get the impression this was more of an idea Blomkamp thought was cool than anything else, because as plot devices go it doesn't really do much. (As Damon is surgically bonded with it through his clothes, I found myself wondering what he did when he needed to, er, take his trousers off. The film has loftier concerns, needless to say.)
I suppose that in the end, part of my dissatisfaction with Elysium stems from the slightly hackneyed script, but also because the film does that mildly annoying thing of not wanting to be just a dumb SF action film and then never quite following through on its ambition. A bit like In Time, you don't need to be John Clute to figure out that the movie's world of haves and have-nots, with limitless medical care and support for a few and barely anything for the rest (and the differences between life on Earth and that on the Orbital and presented almost solely in terms of the healthcare available), is a thinly-disguised commentary on the state of healthcare availability in much of the real world. You're never in doubt that where the film's heart is at – like any other decent person with a brain and a soul, Blomkamp clearly thinks that free universal healthcare should be a no-brainer for any civilised society worthy of the name. And yet for a film apparently aspiring to address a real-world problem, it doesn't have anything to offer in terms of real-world solutions. The film's argument in favour of universal healthcare is almost entirely sentimental, and implied at that – the plot is actually resolved by a big action sequence, a Maguffin, and some computer hacking. Quite what's going to stop the original status quo being restored PDQ is not made clear, unless the characters at the end of the film are now living in a socialist state governed and enforced solely by machines: an unusual conclusion for an American-financed SF blockbuster, to say the least.
I think I'm being too harsh on a film which is well made, directed, and acted, and the sentiments of which I broadly agree with. And, after all, Elysium is a big-budget socialist cyberpunk movie, which manages to comment on the state of the world's healthcare while still including men in cyborg exo-skeletons having fistfights in space. So it has a certain sort of uniqueness to its credit, if nothing else. Creditable: that's a good word for Elysium. It's no District 9, certainly: but it's a lot better than the likes of the Total Recall remake, too. I would applaud it for its ambitions rather than dismissing it for failing to realise them perfectly.