This was enjoyable, exciting, and – most necessary on this occasion – distracting. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the really hostile reviews have made out. Its heart is in the right place. Unlike a lot of dystopian films, it is most definitely on the side of the 99%, who are portrayed as real people with hopes, fears and pains. It’s not subtle, but it manages to do this quite quickly, by engaging emotionally with a group of illegal migrants trying to bypass the border controls to break into Elysium. Its sympathies are with these people, not with the cossetted elite on whose behalf the security apparatus – managed by Jodie Foster as a chillingly efficient head of security – work to exclude them. I liked the way that even the Mexican drug gangs who seemed to dominate the Los Angeles of 2154 are portrayed with some affection; they are also real people, with hopes and dreams, and sometimes with nice eyes.
It is striking looking too. Like its predecessor District 9, it really captures the cyberpunk aesthetic, of a future already worn out and gritty. The fact that the earth-bound elements of this future actually exist – the Los Angeles scenes were filmed in an enormous Mexican rubbish dump – makes this more intense. There are a few nice jokes too – the evil CEO who runs the armaments and security conglomerate is called Carlyle, and Jodie Foster’s character is called Delacourt (after the merchant bank?).
But there is lots about the film that’s not so good. The satire on the corporate controlled world is weak. It just looks like all of the other brutal repressive dystopias, with brutal droid police. Although Matt Damon’s plastic-headed robot parole officer is a nice touch, there is little sign of soft power, consent manufacture or distraction. There is politics on Elysium but not on Earth.
The future technology is very unimaginative. People in 2154 still hold phones up to their ears, use QWERTY keyboards, connect their devices with long trailing cables. The most innovative piece of technology – apart from the clapped-out spaceships and the torus space station itself – is a transparent PC monitor that John Carlyle uses at once point, still typing on a conventional keyboard. And there seems to be only one giant corporation in the future, rather than the screaming multiplicity of brands that we live among now. Why should that be?
And the film is carried along by action (mainly violent) rather than by plot or character. Only Jodie Foster’s character, and the Afrikaner psychopath covert agent – are remotely interesting. Most of the plot elements, the politics and the scenario, are all in place within 20 minutes, and after that it all looks rather like a Playstation first person shooter, as did District 9.
Still, it’s hard not to like. I enjoyed it more for my recent discovery that Matt Damon, who I never really liked as an actor, grew up in leftist commune with favourite Marxist historian Howard Zinn, and is genuinely in sympathy with the film. See, there is a point to reading celeb interviews after all.