‘Elysium’ Takes On Occupational Safety, Income Inequality, Giant Blockbusters

Neill Blomkamp got about triple the $30 million budget of his first feature film, the apartheid-themed alien invasion movie District 9 to make Elysium, his parable of a society radically divided by class, which is due out on August 9. And on that figure, smaller than many of the other action movies on their way to us this summer, it’s still producing some of the best-looking trailers I’ve seen this year, and its concerns are starting to emerge more clearly:


It looks like Max De Costa (Matt Damon), the earth-bound worker who’s the movie’s main character, is going to have two main motivations for breaking into Elysium, the fortified, off-world compound for the super-wealthy controlled by Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). First, there’s his own experience in an industrial accident, whereupon rather than his company taking any sort of responsibility for him, he’s tossed a bottle of pills by a robot, and thanked for his service in a sick, brisk ritual of termination. Then, there’s a very ill young girl to whom De Costa’s connection is unclear. But it’s obvious that Elysium, where people can have their bodies scanned and scrubbed of potential cancers on a daily basis, has a much higher standard of care, and makes it much more widely available, than is the case on earth. And if it’s mostly a thicket of policy that preserves those differences in contemporary America today, Elysium appears to have Sharlto Copley with a very big sword to do the job.


I have high hopes for Elysium, given what a strong outing I thought District 9 was both in its lower-budget special effects and as a movie that was deeply concerned with social commentary, rather than just slapping on a gloss of it. It would be really nice to see Blomkamp make the case that thoughtfulness isn’t a turnoff, that you don’t need to spend $200 million to buy your way to a viable audience (even if District 9’s marketing budget was triple its production costs, it still would have made a profit), and that if you’ve got a genuinely compelling human plot, good acting is your best special effect. I don’t expect Blomkamp alone to turn the tide in a significant way on what Hollywood loves in a blockbuster. But if it, and the current crop of indie science fiction movies like Safety Not Guaranteed could carve out even a consistent little patch of the box office calendar for themselves, I’d be quite pleased.