A Distant Mirror

**Note: To those who follow this blog, please accept my apologies for being absent through much of the summer. I’ve been writing and polishing a mystery novel. Thank you for following me here, and hopefully in a little while you’ll have another example of my writing to read.**

South African director Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 debut District 9 was a sleeper hit in 2009, melding science fiction and sly humor with a social critique of South Africa’s history of apartheid. It also had a soulful resonance as a government apparatchik finds he’s turning into the object of his prejudice. Literary science fiction has always had that element holding up a distant mirror to society. “A Scanner Darkly” was Philip K. Dick’s critique of the war on drugs, “The Time Machine” allowed H.G. Wells to show the likely conclusion of a war-obsessed society, and Isaac Asimov’s robot series was as much about humanity as it was about mechanical men. This was the strength of the original “Star Trek” for while it was set in the future, it often dealt with contemporary themes, such as destructive prejudice in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Bloomkamp’s new movie, Elysium, follows in this vein.

In 2154, the rich have abandoned the polluted, overpopulated earth for life on a huge space station called Elysium. They have the best in healthcare, allowing them to live extended lives in excellent health at no cost. Each house has a computerized medical bed that can fix anything, including cancer and major traumas. But you must be a citizen of Elysium to qualify for such care. For the masses on Earth, healthcare is so overburdened it’s little more than a Band-aid.

Struggling to get by in this world is Max (Matt Damon). He grew up in a Catholic orphanage dreaming of making it to Elysium, which is so large it’s visible in the daytime sky. He’d been a car thief when younger, crimes for which he’s still on probation. The justice system is administered by robots that make Javert seem kindly and compassionate, and a run-in with them sends Max to the hospital with a broken arm. There he reconnects with Freya (Alice Braga), who was his friend in the orphanage and is now a nurse.

At work Max is ordered by a supervisor to perform a dangerous repair or lose his job. In the course of doing it, Max receives a lethal dose of radiation that leaves him with only 5 days to live. The owner of the company, John Carlyle (William Fichtner) is more worried that Max will contaminate their sick bay. Max is given some pills and is sent home to die.

Instead Max, with the help of his friend Julio (Diego Luna), volunteers for a mission for Spider (Wagner Moura), a crime lord/freedom fighter who’s trying to break the power of Elysium. Max is fitted with an exo-skeleton that will keep him strong even as the radiation saps his strength. He’s also fitted with a port that turns his brain into a thumb drive. Standing against Max is Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Director of Homeland Security for Elysium, and her black ops agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

It is a delight to see an original film, when so summer movies are sequels. It’s also good to have a science fiction movie remember its humanity, rather than getting lost in its special effects. The film, which Bloomkamp wrote, doesn’t have the quirky humor of District 9, but it’s replaced it with heart and soul. The special effects serve the story, rather than the other way around. The film was budgeted at a reasonable $115 million for a picture with A-list actors (in comparison to The Lone Ranger’s $215 million) and the money shows up on the screen, with effective visuals and tight action sequences. Philip Ivey’s production design expands on his work with Bloomkamp for District 9; he’s given a larger canvas on which to work and he fills it beautifully.

Damon is effective (as always) as Max, making him an everyman that you root for while still keeping Max grounded in reality. For the first time, Jodie Foster plays a heavy, yet she imbues Delacourt with a humane core, albeit one that is suppressed for most of the film. Copley brings a dangerous edginess to the role of Kruger that ups the energy of every scene he’s in. Kudos to Bloomkamp for keeping Foster’s title, thereby highlighting the Orwellian nature of that office.

Good science fiction is thought-provoking, and Elysium passes that test. The mirror it holds up to current events is effective, and well worth viewing in the theater.

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