Writer/director Neill Blomkamp's 2009 debut feature film District 9 was surprisingly successful both creatively and commercially; the $30 million independently produced sci-fi movie earned four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. The film was praised for its visual effects, thematic content (allusions to apartheid), and its impressive action sequences, and Blomkamp immediately became a person of interest to sci-fi fans. Now he's back with Elysium, another piece of social commentary wrapped in a science fiction package. But does it live up to the promise of his first feature?
Writer/Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Alice Braga, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
Damon plays Max, an ex-con living in the slums of Los Angeles (which, in the year 2154, looks like a mix of Mexico City and Mega City One) who's turned his back on his crime-ridden past. He just wants an honest day's work, but the robotic drones who patrol the city can't see past the ink on his permanent record, so they constantly harass him. But Max's past catches up with him in the form of his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga), who has returned to town with her sick daughter in tow. They reconnect, and it looks like everything might work out.
Just as things seem to be on the upswing for our hero, an accident at work douses him with radiation. He has only five days to live, and only one way to survive: get to Elysium, the ring-shaped space station orbiting Earth where only the super-rich live. They have technology to cure any disease or injury, but they won't share it with the underprivileged down below. Donning a weaponized mech suit, Max gets involved with the shady characters from his past in order to buy his way to Elysium, but ends up facing off against Kruger (Sharlto Copley), an ruthless former soldier used as a mercenary by Elysium's Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster) to stop Max and his team from making it up to their Utopian paradise.
The ever-relatable Damon does some good work here, and sci-fi queen Alice Braga - who in the past few years alone has appeared in I Am Legend, Repo Men, and Predators - is effective as a vulnerable-yet-fiercely protective mother. Jodie Foster and William Fichtner ooze contempt as Elysium citizens forced to deal with their "lesser" human brethren, and guys like Diego Luna and Elite Squad star Wagner Moura turn in solid performances as grimy Earthlings who do what is necessary to survive in their dusty, trash-filled surroundings. But perhaps the most memorable performance is Sharlto Copley's as Kruger, snarling through the film with a feral beard, robotic implants buried in his skin, and a complete lack of morality.
Elysium is a fascinating sophomore effort from Blomkamp because it takes both the strengths and weaknesses of District 9 and amplifies them, resulting in a film that has slick action, wondrous special effects, and stunning world building but is also extremely heavy-handed with its messages. The metaphors here are so obvious they border on obnoxious, and when Frey's cute little daughter stops to tell Max a story, the movie may as well be waving a sign that says, "this is how the entire rest of the narrative will play out."
Still, despite its heavy-handedness, it's nice to see a movie that has a strong point of view, however overt it comes across. It definitely doesn't add anything new to the conversation about immigration or social imbalance - the story is essentially an "equality for all" morality tale - but at least Blomkamp presents ideas worth discussing. As with so many other films this summer, Elysium suffers in its third act and ultimately devolves into a series of biomechanical dudes beating the hell out of each other, sort of like a stripped down version of Pacific Rim. It seems designed to give the audience catharsis in seeing the 1% get what's coming to them, but it's tough to take the film's messages seriously when it jarringly transitions from simple social commentary to a very conventional game of Punch The Bad Guy.
I'll be interested to see if Blomkamp eschews the social commentary aspects in his next project altogether, but if he decides to make that his hallmark as a storyteller, I'm hoping he finds a co-writer who can weave it into his larger story with more subtlety than we saw here. But if nothing else, see this film for the remarkable, near photo-real visuals and the impressive dual worlds that he and his design team created. Until next time...