Neil Blomkamp exploded onto the scene with his debut feature, 2009’s District 9. It was as intelligent and socially and politically conscious as it was action packed. It presented Blomkamp as a fully formed filmmaker and, at a $30 million budget, proved he could do more with less than most in Hollywood. So, his follow up was expected with much heated anticipation and it’s finally here. Elysium touches on many similarities in District 9, but Blomkamp’s sophomore feature is a much more streamlined effort. Still taking on social and political issues, it’s main objective — as it is with most films — is to entertain.
Matt Damon stars as Max, an ex-con living in a dystopian Los Angeles in 2154. Ravaged by disease and overpopulation, the wealthiest have abandoned Earth and created a utopian space station known as Elysium where machines can cure any disease in seconds. Following an accident at the robot plant where he works, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and given five days to live. His only chance of survival is illegally emigrating to Elysium to be cured by such a machine. Of course, in order to obtain passage from the seedy Spider (Wagner Moura) he is suited up with a robotic exoskeleton to download information from the brain of Elysium businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner) before he returns. Only the information is much more powerful than they first thought.
The social and political aspects for the story are immediately apparent. It’s a case of rich vs. poor, where the wealthy have literally created a separate world for themselves. And while some may want more of of a moral stance on the issue aside from “it’s bad,” it’s merely a backdrop for what is, in essence, a character-driven story. Max’s reasons for becoming involved in a battle between worlds is a selfish one — he just wants to survive. His unseen enemy is Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who is also after the data to reboot Elysium’s systems and oust President Patel (Faran Tahir). The enemy he comes face to face with is the blacklisted Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Essentially it becomes a story where Max’s struggle for self-preservation aligns with saving the rest of Earth.
And yet, that sounds a lot more intricate than it is because, really, Elysium is an action film. Some — namely fans of District 9 — may be hoping for a more cerebral film instead of one that’s really more brawn than brains. But that’s not a bad thing. Blomkamp creates an intriguing social backdrop with which he places gorgeous scenes of survival. And with bloated films becoming the norm recently, Elysium is tight and quick. It doesn’t waste a moment of screen time picking up the story. At times it feels at the expense of some character development, but aside from Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga), whom he reconnects with after years of being apart, all characters are just who they are in this moment. Max is really the only one whose history comes to weigh in on his fight for life.
If the film has any real fatal flaw — if it can really even be called fatal — is its sometimes grandiose sense of purpose. A myriad of flashbacks to Max as an orphaned kid flurry across the screen in the beginning and aside from bordering on cliche, it feels overly self-important, and even overly serious, which robs the viewer of the richness of the world Blomkamp has created. However, it’s an aspect that is only glimpsed at rather than carried throughout the entire film.
Elysium’s greatest strength may be its utter beauty. Not only in the decrepit Earth and blossoming Elysium that Blomkamp has rendered, but in it’s action scenes which are visceral yet crystal clear. The final fight between Max and Agent Kruger atop a factory bridge is imbued with a Samurai sensibility as white flowers float around them creating a truly breathtaking portrait.
Blomkamp creates a legitimate blockbuster by excising the bloat and playing fast with the story. Like last year’s Looper, the futuristic and dystopian world is a setting within which a story builds out of for a few characters. Those characters, however unknowingly, become entangled within a plot that changes the world around them forever. It may not be the game changer many were hoping for, but expectations be damned Elysium is the best blockbuster of the summer (so far).
Rating: 4 out of 5