American film (2013). Tristar Pictures/Sony. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner. Written by Neill Blomkamp. 109 minutes. Colour.
In the year 2154, Earth's wealthiest citizens have retreated to an enormous, torus-shaped Space Habitat called Elysium (> Keep), where they enjoy idyllic lives in Earth orbit while masses of poor people suffer on the surface of an overpopulated, polluted Earth. Trapped in a hardscrabble life in a Los Angeles (> California) policed by Robots, factory worker Max De Costa (Matt Damon) accidentally gets a lethal dose of radiation, and seeks to travel to Elysium in order to make use of their miraculous chambers that scan for and cure all illnesses (> Medicine); meanwhile, Elysium's ruthless Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster) has asked factory president John Carlyle (William Fichtner) to prepare new programming for Elysium that will place her in charge of the habitat. As part of his scheme to get to Elysium, De Costa attacks Fichtner to absorb valuable information from his augmented brain and inadvertently captures the extremely powerful programming in his own brain. Then, as he lands on Elysium hoping to save both himself and the dying daughter of his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), his ally Julio (Diego Luna) alters and implements the programming so that all people on Earth become citizens of Elysium and hence gain access to its privileges. However, activating Carlyle's highly protected data causes De Costa's death.
Writer-director Blomkamp peppers his film with references to current controversies: the war on terror (the agency that protects Elysium is called "Homeland Security"), efforts to oppose unauthorized immigration (citizens of Earth who land on Elysium are described as "illegals"), and health care reform (the one Elysium service that people crave more than anything else is its free and effective health care). Yet none of this adds up to a coherent political agenda, so that descriptions of the film as a socialist manifesto are highly exaggerated. The film is rather part of the long tradition of cautionary tales decrying an imagined future of extreme social divisions demarcated by one's elevation, such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and an episode of the original Star Trek series, "The Cloud-Minders" (1969). From an sf perspective, the film can also be read as a commentary on the negative effects of Space Flight, as the space-dwelling residents of Elysium have become both cold elitists and pampered weaklings, overcome by Earth's vigorous insurgents with surprising ease. Its rotating space habitat, uniquely, somehow holds a breathable atmosphere without any sort of protective dome, though how this is achieved is not explained. [GW]
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