Neill Blomkamp surprised a lot of people with his 2009 science fiction thriller “District 9”. While I wasn’t drawn to it, the majority of critics gave it high marks. It would go on to earn four Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. His eagerly anticipated follow up comes in the form of “Elysium”, another sci-fi foray soaked in social commentary. It’s a bleak, gritty, and violent film with high ambition and a much bigger budget.
Blomkamp once again writes and directs the movie which starts with a pretty heavy-handed setup. Blatantly obvious political statements on immigration, healthcare, and class warfare are thrown at the audience without an ounce of tact or subtlety. In fact it’s so painfully obvious that I started rolling my eyes and began to dread what was ahead. But to my surprise the film steers away from that and instead of shoving its positions in our face it allows them to simmer underneath the surface which definitely better serves the movie.
The story basically goes like this – in the distant future Earth is an impoverished and overpopulated planet. People struggle against starvation, disease, and a brutish robot police force. But while the poor make up the Earth’s population, the rich upper-class live on a luxurious space station community known as Elysium. This orbital paradise features mansions, lush gardens, and machines able to cure any health problem instantly. But here’s the catch – only the wealthy and powerful are allowed on Elysium and there are strict government and military bodies that enforce that rule. As I said, not an ounce of subtlety.
Enter Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a struggling assembly line worker on Earth who has an accident which exposes him to lethal amounts of radiation. He learns he has only five days to live, but he’s not ready to kick the bucket just yet. He has to get to Elysium for treatment so he makes a deal with an underground smuggler. In exchange for a trip he must steal some important information from a corrupt military contractor. Seeing Max’s failing health, the smuggler has his doctors implant him with a super-strength robotic exoskeleton and cerebral implant to help with the mission. But Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) also wants that information for her own nefarious reasons and she will do anything to get it.
Oddly enough “Elysium” drastically changes course as the film goes along. It moves from an obvious heavy-handed social critique to a fairly conventional sci-fi action flick. It uses several all too familiar approaches and it’s fairly easy to gain a sense of how things are going to end. That said, Blomkamp’s pacing is spot on. He keeps things moving which keeps the audience attached. He also has wonderful visual senses. The movie looks great whether it’s the big sweeping location shots or the intense and sometimes brutal action (and there is quite a bit of it). I loved the contrasting aesthetics between the dirty, rundown vision of Los Angeles (which was actually filmed in the Mexico City area) and the spotless Eden-like Elysium. Blomkamp has an unquestionable knack for visual filmmaking.
Matt Damon is a solid choice to portray a ‘regular guy’. There’s not a lot of flash or bravado to his performance. He’s not a bold or larger-than-life character. In fact I would call him a very atypical hero and that works well within the story. But then there is Jodie Foster. I have no idea what she’s doing in this movie. Her erratic performance is all over the map and her accent morphs from French to British to something I’ve never heard before. I also thought Sharlto Copley was pretty bad as a ruthless sleeper agent who works for Delacourt. He certainly looks the part but that’s it. I don’t know if it’s his voice or his line delivery but nearly all of his dialogue feels terribly off. But thankfully this is Damon’s movie and he carries most of the load.
There’s no doubt that Neill Blomkamp is a gifted visual storyteller. I loved the overall look of “Elysium” from the futuristic technologies to the locations. I also thought the action scenes popped with intensity and grit. Unfortunately his writing prompts the question mark. Early on he uses a mighty broad brush to paint his social/political landscape and later the movie turns into a fairly conventional action film – two issues that I think keeps “Elysium” from being the really good movie that we get glimpses of. Still it has its moments. and as conventional as it may be, the action and pure visual spectacle keep it from being a total loss.