Based in empathy and political smarts, this blockbuster aspires to be more than insulting filmic pollution.
Lauren Carroll Harris
Published on August 17, 2013


The end of the world is happening in Hollywood. This North American summer has already seen Tom Cruise meet Oblivion, Seth Rogen and co scream This Is the End and all of us embrace our wildest apocalyptic fears in our terrible movie heavens.

Now with Elysium, the director of District 9, Neill Blomkamp, turns his sights from apartheid South Africa to the interplanetary concern of undocumented immigrants. In the 22nd century, Earth is overpopulated, polluted and diseased. The Third World is now the world, and the rich have fled and founded a new off-planet habitat, Elysium, a floating disc of palm trees and daiquiris where the idyll sun-bake in oblivion and 'medbays' cure all sickness in seconds.

The ruined Earth is just in sight over the horizon, where Matt Damon toils away making the terrifying robot policemen that oppress him and the other proles. A cruelly unnecessary industrial accident exposes him to lethal radiation, and now he's the classic John Connor-style everyman hero with nothing to lose. He needs a medbay, and the only solution is to wage an all-out war on Elysium, opening it up to all Earthly "illegals". His war armour transforms him into a man-robot fighting machine — if Aldous Huxley rather than Marvel designed Ironman.

Let's face it, Matt Damon is a boss. Not only is he the most bankable actor in Hollywood, he has not given one dud performance, ever. Think about it. The day he does will be the day I weep and quit movie reviewing with a heavy heart and wistful glance in Brad Pitt's direction.

Jodie Foster is our steel eyed, fluorescent-toothed and impeccably tailored Bad Ass Neo-Con, Delacourt. Foster is in full-tilt Nicholas Cage mode here, dispensing with naturalism to give a presentation-style performance as a heartless Hawk whose sole job is to keep those pesky illegals at bay and the squeaky clean wealth of Elysium safe.

Her henchman Kruger (Sharlto Copley) is a no less than a demented sadist, screeching outrageously abusive one-liners in a full-blooded South African accent. While his boss is the ostensibly civilised policymaker pushing the sleek buttons of war from afar, Kruger is the brutal, gloves-off and knives-out psycho, and together they form both sides of the conservative coin.

This gleeful bastard must surely be one of the best baddies in recent movie history, and a hysterical one at that. He injects the film with a blood-red jab of dark humour, and that sense of humour is something that is sorely lacking from the surging majority of Hollywood blockbusters. His one-liners are wonderfully gruesome, real Old Testament stuff. Best of all, it's this Hannibal-style character that allows Blomkamp to really reach beyond the formulaic sameness that characterises most films of this hi-tech genre and deliver some proper twists in the final act.

If you've wondered why recent big-shot Hollywood flicks like the $200 million-plus World War Z have been oddly bloodless, in a way that doesn't gel with their ADHD violence, it's because rocketing production budgets ensure that these films need to be rated PG to attract the largest possible spectrum of paying cinema-goers, and that has to mean high school-aged boys and their parents. Elysium has no such qualms — with an MA15+ stamp, it has gross blood to spare and it's all the more satisfying as a result.

If there ever was going to be a contemporary director to hijack Hollywood, it's Blomkamp. He delivers blockbusters based in empathy and political smarts that actually aspire to be more than insulting filmic pollution. The state of Elysium suffers from a serious "political sickness, a moral tumour that must be removed". It's an especially crucial message in the weeks leading up to this country's joke of an election and the more open-ended atmosphere of unhooked xenophobic psychosis.

Increasingly, being Australian is like having a totally obnoxious and embarrassing mother who's vocally and publicly racist. And homophobic. And sexist. And completely without social skills. The towering blockbusters of the literary realm have often been piercingly thoughtful and critical (here I'm thinking of Brave New World and The Road. It's more than time for movie blockbusters to be the same, to linger in an afterburn of ideas. Elysium is the blockbuster for me. And these mad times.


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