Thursday, 5 September 2013

Film Review: Elysium

Words: Graeme Roberts

Set in the 22nd Century, Elysium imagines a divided human society in which the poor masses live on a grossly overpopulated, environmentally ruined earth while the wealthy few reside on a luxurious man-made habitat in space.  

South African director Neill Blomkamp won considerable acclaim for his previous sci-fi blockbuster District 9, which explores similar themes of apartheid and social injustice.  In that film, Blomkamp cast extra-terrestrials as the victims of an oppressive regime to provide a haunting, defamiliarising parallel with the historical reality for South Africa’s black population.

Elysium transports us to America and takes the further step of portraying its disenfranchised peoples as racially indistinguishable from their rich counterparts.  There are some key identifiers which allow distinctions to be made - American English and Spanish are the languages of earth, while British English and French are spoken (with unconvincing accents in Jodie Foster’s case) up on Elysium.  Linguistic identity replaces race as a shorthand indicator of economic class. 

This is problematic, as it relegates the issue of race where it ought to be promoted.  Arguably the film’s biggest problem is the protagonist Max (Matt Damon), a white male messiah-figure in a world ravaged largely by the sins of powerful white men.  The narrative is age-old and Blomkamp has shunned the ideal opportunity to offer a collective, more inclusive solution.

The reason for this is perhaps the need to sell a visually stunning movie to Hollywood and the cinema-going public.  Or perhaps Blomkamp is suggesting that issues of inequality can only be solved through the increased social mobility available to white males?

It is curious that the figurehead for Elysium is a white female, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who comes to overrule a darker-skinned male President Patel.  Yet even Delacourt must harness the inherent potency of a white male in Kruger (Sharlto Copley), her enforcer/bounty hunter on earth.  Kruger’s name and thick South African accent exhibit him as a protector of apartheid, much like his nation’s pre-Mandela regime. 

The cinematic trailer for Elysium

Despite these problems, Elysium is a very slick movie with an uncomplicated plot and it deserves some praise for putting the issues of socio-economic inequality and immigration into the spotlight.  The inability of earth’s population to access proper medical treatment is a timely comment on the Obamacare debate, and it should also be interpreted as a reflection of the situation which befalls Africa and the rest of the developing world.  This is enhanced by the minimal exploration of life on Elysium, which presumably is emotionally vacuous.

As a sci-fi action movie, Elysium is a huge triumph.  The fight and chase sequences are a delight to the senses, the central characters are extremely strong and the film’s length and pace are both perfect.  With Matt Damon in the lead role it feels like Jason Bourne meets The Matrix, and though the concept does not work quite as well as those esteemed franchises, one cannot help but admire Elysium’s cinematic proficiency and whole-hearted ambition.

Oxford Road rating: 

Find the film on IMDB: Elysium     

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