Elysium Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. R16.
An intriguing and often thought-provoking feature of science-fiction movies is how they envisage the world - and human life - in the future, usually turning present-day concerns or advances into cautionary tales with nightmare scenarios.
It might be a world in which people are killed at age 30 due to overpopulation (Logan's Run) or people secretly turned into processed food due to overpopulation (Soylent Green).
Technological progress can result in computers and machines taking over (The Terminator and The Matrix trilogies).
Totalitarian regimes rule with Big Brother surveillance (1984), brainwashing away free will to combat violence (A Clockwork Orange) or providing entertainment by having young people compete in lethal contests (The Hunger Games).
Others can focus on environmental exploitation (Avatar), climate change (Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow), DNA or genetic manipulation (Gattaca, Blade Runner), unexpected pollution effects (Children of Men) or survival in post-apocalyptic worlds (Mad Max trilogy, The Road).
The latest is Elysium, from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose impressive first feature film, District 9 (2009), was a satirical sci-fi action/thriller about xenophobia and apartheid. Now he depicts a dystopian world ravaged by overpopulation, pollution and disease.
What might resonate with moviegoers is the film's initial portrayal of the gap between the rich and poor, especially in the wake of recent reports that this gap is now wider in New Zealand than ever before, and that worldwide the vast majority of wealth, and associated benefits, is concentrating more and more into fewer hands (the so-called one percenters).
It's the year 2154 and the richest people have abandoned a desolate Earth to live in pristine luxury on a giant orbital space station seemingly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wall-E and Beverly Hills.
Providing clean air and medical treatment that can speedily heal almost any affliction, this refuge is truly a habitat akin to its mythological namesake, Elysium, where mortals related to, or chosen by, the gods dwelled in the after-life.
On impoverished Earth, the rest of the population struggles in squalor for survival under authoritarian rule enforced by robot soldiers. Attempts to smuggle "illegals" into Elysium are met with deadly force.
Living in a vast Los Angeles slum hellhole (actually shot in Mexico City) are two people who desperately need urgent medical care. Ex-car thief Max (Matt Damon) has suffered an accident and given only five days to live without treatment; his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), now a nurse, has a young daughter dying from leukaemia.
Max's willingness to do whatever he has to do to get to Elysium to be healed will make him a most wanted man by Elysium's heartless defence secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who is plotting a coup d'etat to seize power. She enlists psychopathic killer Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to capture Max, who has come to have "the keys to the kingdom" in his head.
Visually, Elysium is arresting and its story quickly engages. Max and Delacourt become polar opposites, underscoring thematic threads which touch on healthcare and immigration issues in the separate worlds of the haves and the have-nots.
But Blomkamp seems to lose interest in exploring more deeply this kind of apartheid separation - or maybe he didn't know where to go with it. Whatever, the movie's interesting topicality fades into the background, replaced by heavy-handed, violent action.
As Max dons an exoskeletal contraption to help him fight and to download another human's intelligence, and Kruger pursues him, familiar generic action ensues with chases, fights, explosions and gore.
Even here, Blomkamp arguably overuses the herky-jerky, fast-edit, handheld camerawork - the action fury and flurry becoming blurry.
The emphasis on action also results in rather one-dimensional characters: Foster is practically robotic in Delacourt's icy ruthlessness; Copley is ferociously nasty (with an Afrikaner's accent); and Braga is a sentimental damsel-in-distress with a sick child.
Only versatile Damon - beefy, tattooed, head shaven - manages to give his Max some depth.
Indeed, while Elysium is entertaining enough as an action movie, its overall superficiality is disappointing after a promising start - perhaps an example of what happens when budgets get big and studios are more concerned with profits than ideas.
- © Fairfax NZ News