No person who has sat through Neill Blomkamp's superb District 9 will easily mistake Elysium for the work of any other director. Trent Opaloch's mobile camera continues to search nervously for incoming ordnance above dystopian cities poisoned by social inequality and state terrorism. Shanty towns fester in baking heat. Honest men must behave brutally to counter injustice.
Come to think of it, if Sharlto Copley did not turn up in Elysium as a very different character to the man he played in District 9, one could easily jump to the conclusion that both films take place in the same universe.
More importantly for the damaged dignity of mainstream cinema, the two pictures are – unusually for summer entertainments – serious in their desire to engage with complex political notions. It’s a long time since any major studio closed the silly season with a $115 million Marxist polemic. Maybe nobody will notice.
Blomkamp has moved his attention from an alternative version of contemporary Johannesburg to Los Angeles in the year 2154. The city has given into festering, ungovernable chaos. Life expectancy is low. Work is hard to come by. Most of the earth’s population has, it transpires, been left to its own filth while a privileged elite lives luxuriously on a torus-shaped space habitat in near-earth orbit. On the old, battered planet, citizens fight to receive rudimentary healthcare. In the distant community named Elysium, devices called Med-Pods cure all known diseases.
Battered, reformed petty criminal Max Da Costa (Damon) acts as the audience's eyes and ears. Doing his best to hold down a job, he obeys an absurd order from his bellowing boss and suffers fatal levels of radiation exposure. A plan is then hatched with a local hoodlum to get Max to Elysium and the treatment that only a Med-Pod can provide.
Elysium grapples with a great many contemporary issues (the best speculative science fiction is almost always about the present). But its particular concerns are to do with immigration and the provision of healthcare. The evil head of security in Elysium – played by a more than usually sub-glacial Jodie Foster – blows intruding shuttles out of the atmosphere like a furious sheriff at the Mexican border. Cancer patients struggle for treatment on earth while, on a paradise visible over the horizon, the well-off are rapidly propelled back to health.
The set-up is as convincing as were the superb opening sections of District 9. Every corner of every environment has been brilliantly rendered: messily for the plebs; briskly box-fresh for the masters. Always a sympathetic actor, Damon makes a properly tragic figure of his tortured everyman. Indeed, the film starts promisingly enough to suggest that we might be watching a classic for the ages.
About halfway through, alas, problems do set in. The plotting becomes increasingly laden with MacGuffins – information implanted in characters’ metabolisms, plots to overthrow the regime – that only serve to impede the core story’s steady progress. Foster (brains) and Copley (brawn) are asked to play characters with all the nuance of, respectively, Goldfinger and Oddjob. More seriously, the conceit of the Med-Pod is just too simplistic to assist in constructing analogies with anything so complex as the state of contemporary healthcare. Would that the issue were simply about pushing this button or leaving it unpressed?
Those concerns regretfully addressed, one has to conclude that Elysium stands proudly above the rest of this summer's biff-bosh action pabulum. Though he makes his case through the application of broad strokes, Blomkamp's justified anger at the inequality in modern society infuses the picture with an energy that is never less than exhilarating. It's certainly the first blockbuster of the year that could – though sadly it doesn't – impose some version of The Internationale over its final credits. "Stand up, damned of the earth. Stand up, prisoners of starvation . . ." I can't hear you at the back.