ELYSIUM. Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, and William Fichtner. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong bloody violence). 109 min.

This American science fiction film tells of a destitute Earth, and an area for the privileged and elite, called “Elysium” that orbits in space above it. The film is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who brought us “District 9” (2009). Scenes on earth were shot in a garbage dump in the slums of Mexico, while the scenes for Elysium were shot in the affluent suburbs of Mexico City and in Vancouver.

Elysium is reserved only for the very wealthy. It is a high-tech space station which provides every conceivable luxury, and has special advantages for its citizens such as instant cure for any disease they have through special healing bays installed in every house. Those who are not on Elysium live below it, surrounded by desolation and disease. The governors of Elysium enforce any law that preserves the lifestyle of its citizens, even to the extent of destroying disabled spaceships carrying refugees from Earth which try to land. Elysium doesn’t want to relinquish control in any way of its borders, or reverse the class distinctions that it has established to guarantee its future.

Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) lives on Earth, struggling to understand the injustices of his world. As an adult ex-convict on parole he works in an industry assembly line that is monitored by robot drones, and an accident exposes him to a severe dose of radiation. The cancer he gets from the radiation gives him only five days to live, and he knows that his only chance of survival is to reach Elysium. He can’t meet Elysium’s draconian anti-immigration laws and he agrees to steal the identity of a rich businessman, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), for the price of a ticket. This brings him into conflict with the person in charge of the Police Force on Elysium, Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Thinking that Elysium is becoming too liberal, Delacourt wants to tighten control further and she has taken ruthless steps to become Elysium’s next President. She uses Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a psychopathic secret agent, who has assisted her in the past to help her again, and she pits him against Max.  

This is an intelligent sci-fi movie which probes very plausibly a piece of the possible future. The size of Earth’s population easily divides it into the haves- and have-nots, and as poverty and misery have grown, social class distinctions have arisen to separate the privileged from the under-privileged. One can very easily imagine that “Elysium versus Earth” has parallels for countries trying to cope with people, who come to their shores in desperation, willing to take enormous risks to find a better life. Class warfare has been a rich field for past films of note, but there is a special contemporary relevance to the issues that this film raises. Max seeks passage to Elysium together with Frey (Alice Braga), his childhood sweetheart and her leukaemia-stricken daughter. Access to the advantages of Elysium promises them, as all refugees from Earth, a new and better life.

Neill Blomkamp exposes us to the luxurious features of Elysium in a way that makes us very uncomfortable about the advantages of the privileged, and the actions taken by Delacourt and her henchman, Kruger, to keep Max out. In the conflict between Max, Kruger and Delacourt, bloody violence inevitably ensues. Max has downloaded data from Carlyle’s brain, which reboots Elysium’s entire security system, and his action poses a serious threat to Delacourt’s ambitious resolve.

This is a movie that dramatically raises major social and political problems of today, but its pursuit of the ever-popular theme of action-violence keeps it away from looking at them too closely. Does it claim that over-population, poverty and pollution are to blame, or is the real problem the privileged intent of the “deserving” or the malevolence of those wanting to assume authority over them? One is never sure. Earth’s problems are entirely believable, but the solutions Elysium provides are not.

The visual effects in this movie are stunning and they combine seamlessly with both the realistic and fantasy elements of the film. Distracted by its action-violence which is the mechanism Blomkamp chooses to maintain the film’s tension, this film plays seriously around the contemplative edge of very good science fiction. Its social commentary is disturbingly contemporary, and it is a movie smart enough to be highly involving as well.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Sony Pictures.

Out August 15th 2013.

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