We’re now deep into our summer of discontent, in which worst-case scenarios—scorched Earths, global zombie epidemics, biblical Judgment Days—seem to slouch toward our multiplexes every other weekend. Next to superhero movies, dystopic parables have become the big-budget genre du jour, both playing off both our collective anxieties over the here and now (if things don’t stop declining rapidly, then…) and giving us a safe space to exorcise them (see, things could be so much worse). “Unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in society at large,” Alvin Toffler wrote in his 1970 the-sky-has-already-fallen study Future Shock, “we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown.” The point of controlling the plummet is long past, so these what-if stories offer us a sneak-preview stare into our potential abyss. Or, as another wise man said, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”
Hollywood loves these apocalypse-soon stories, however, because they function as blank canvases for ruin porn, and if nothing else, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium gives us the realistically trashed tomorrow we suspect we deserve. The year is 2154, our big blue marble is wrecked, and the City of Angels is now a Third World proletariat village of the damned. (The exteriors were filmed in an impoverished area of Mexico City, recasting our nation’s entertainment capital as a contemporary everyslum. Keep eating yourself, Los Angeles!) Legitimate work can be found, primarily in prisonlike superfactories that would make Foxconn Technology drool with envy, but most folks make their living in less-than-legal ways. Ominous-looking robots employ a populace-wide stop-and-frisk policy. Forget Matt Damon, the film’s A-list lead; the real star of this sci-fi bleakbuster is Philip Ivey’s production design, which builds on the same shantytown-on-steroids look he and Blomkamp employed for their previous hit, District 9 (2009).
Still, you can’t make a movie like this without a narrative and a Christ figure, which is where Damon’s Max comes in. A former foster kid with a checkered past, this poor grunt just wants to put in time at his blue-collar job and keep his head down, maybe take his now-grown childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) on a date. An accident leaves him with a lethal dose of radiation and five days to live. His only hope is to get an interstellar coyote to ferry him to the Promised Land 2.0: Elysium, the squeaky-clean rotating space paradise that houses the 1 percent and has a “re-atomizer” cure-all machine in every home. Max’s ex-associate can get him there, provided he hijack some “brain data” from a visiting corporate CEO (William Fichtner)—who is smuggling plans in his noggin that will allow Elysium’s one-woman NSA (Jodie Foster) to stage a coup.
The stage is set for heavy-artillery firefights, high-speed chases in Road Warrior–ish cars, heist thrills and, once Max has a rusty metal exoskeleton grafted onto his body, some mano a mano supercyborg combat. (If Damon’s character is terminally sick from radiation poisoning, you ask, how could he survive such an invasive surgery? Oh, you and your pesky questions!, the film replies, giving you a noogie and sending you on your way.) This is where Blomkamp’s signature Pentium-chip punk aesthetic starts to pay off in spades. He specializes in tactile sci-fi, and as in District 9, there’s a thrillingly palpable sense that, somehow, you’re watching actual third-generation hardware being used to splatteriffic effect, instead of so many weightless 1s and Os. Though he may cobble his futurescape from various spare parts—good luck in not humming Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz during the film’s gliding wide shots of its satellite Eden, or thinking of Blade Runner during the random-fire L.A. horizon shots—what he puts together from the detritus, like his characters’ weaponry and makeshift dwellings, feels both familiar and unique.
Once Max and the South African mercenary (Sharlto Copley) pursuing him take their fight to the wheel in the sky that keeps on turnin’, however, the familiar aspects—as well as the already heavy-handed metaphors—start to outweigh the sui generis. Having Earth denizens mostly speak Spanish and Elysium inhabitants speak French is a nice touch, but giving Foster a blue-blood accent suggests she hails from the planet Central Casting. Ditto Copley’s bad guy, who ends up being just another graduate of the mustache-twirling school of sadistic villainy, and the climactic knock-down-drag-out might have been lifted from any action film of the previous dozen summers. Just because you’ve constructed a plausible 22nd-century shitshow of social breakdown and class warfare doesn’t mean you can skate by with 19th-century plot tricks, especially since the market is now so flooded with dystopias that we’re on the verge of entering the Age of Apocalypse-Flick Fatigue. Elysium may point with a singularly pulpy brio toward where we could be headed. But in terms of how its fictional heroes try to transcend such brave new worlds, it’s not showing us a future we haven’t seen a million times before.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear