Eagerly we have awaited Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to “District 9,” which gave audiences an almost unrivaled combination of entertainment, mystery, emotion and intelligence. The bar was understandably high for “Elysium,” an even glossier film with bigger stars and a higher concept with higher stakes.
Matt Damon stars as Max, an Earthbound factory worker who has dreamed of going to the space habitat Elysium his entire life. All the poor live on a pollution-ravaged Earth, while the rich all bolted for Elysium, where they’ve developed the ability to cure all illness. Understandably, Earth is full of people desperate to break into Elysium and steal back both life and hope. Max becomes among the most desperate when a factory accident leaves him with five days to live.
“Elysium” and “District 9” have a lot in common and warrant a comparison. Foremost, Blomkamp proves beyond a doubt with this film that his imagination when it comes to science fiction, especially high-tech weapons, has no rival in Hollywood. What he and his creative team have dreamt up in this film, from the exoskeleton armor to the countless guns, will make any geek squeal with joy.
The juxtaposition of futuristic imagery with dirty, crusty, rugged imagery is another trait Blomkamp’s two films share. He’s clearly fascinated with the war of the classes, which is the main theme of “Elysium” in particular. The wealthy characters in power, such as Elysium’s defense secretary (Jodie Foster) and the tech mogul who supplies Elysium and Earth with all its robotic law enforcement (William Fichtner), are portrayed as downright despicable, greedy and malicious. Interestingly, Max isn’t inherently good. His past record isn’t so clean, for one. Yet we’re persuaded quite strongly to hate this dystopian world and want to see Max succeed.
The scope is much wider and stakes much higher in “Elysium” than in “District 9,” which already presents a challenge in terms of minimizing plot holes and becoming invested in the characters. Plus, the story follows a much more typical formula; there’s little doubt as to how it will end, so the mystery element is not as strong. “Elysium” excels more in the realm of entertainment and creativity, with action sequences playing out like an awesome video game. Kruger (Sharlto Copley), for example, a sleeper agent being illegally utilized by Foster’s character, plays a frightening badass of a villain, the kind that will make you a little nervous when you reach the boss level.
Damon makes for as good a lead as you could ask for in his most physical role outside the “Bourne” series. Desperation to survive guides Max, who to begin the film has the worst day ever, but he’s remarkably poised, which helps balance the character out. And Blomkamp is careful to give him a soul through use of flashbacks and symbolism, even if that emotional hook only sinks so deep because he has to wedge it in there amidst the busy plot. “Elysium” is definitely more fun to look at than it is to think about, though the effort on the intellectual side was probably worth it to avoid the film from being too hollow.
Blomkamp shoots a bit too high with his second film, trying to stay true to the intelligent spirit of “District 9” while moving in the direction of a full-on blockbuster. Only Christopher Nolan has done that successfully to this point with “Inception.” so it’s not exactly easy territory. Thankfully, “Elysium” has plenty to dazzle audience with in the event that it wasn’t as stimulating for other parts of the brain.
Blomkamp has the kind of vision that’s on par with today’s great directors and he might be the most detail-oriented of all of them. He will continue to make entertaining films because of it and occasionally write something or come across a script worthy of his imagination. “Elysium” is not a blemish on his slow-building resume, but when all is said and done, hopefully it can be considered a better-than-average learning moment in a fantastic career.
Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga