I’ve been looking forward to Elysium for a long damn time. District 9 blew my mind when I saw it back in 2009. It was a fresh, compelling, brilliant piece of sci-fi that, to my mind at least, hasn’t been equalled by much since. Writer/director Niell Blomkamp has been disappointingly quiet since then, but thankfully he’s back with another true blue science fiction title with an actual brain.
“They will hunt you to the edge of the Earth for this.”
Elysium is set in 2154. Earth is now choked with pollution, disease and overpopulation. The wealthy and privileged got the fuck out of Dodge and live aboard Elysium, a utopian space station full of lush plant life, massive mansions and, crucially, amazing healthcare that can eradicate cancer, reconstruct grievous injuries and basically fix any ailment going. Matt Damon stars as Max Da Costa, a working stiff with a criminal past who dreams of leaving the dusty, grotty Earth behind and living on Elysium. However, Elysian Secretary of Defence, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) exists to keep a lid on immigration and will viciously protect its borders. After Max absorbs a lethal amount of radiation in an accident at work, his pipe dreams become imperative as he needs Elysium’s healthcare to survive. He pulls one last job in an effort to buy his way onto the space habitat and ends up with childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter in tow. Things get more complicated when Elysian agent and violent psychopath Kruger (Sharlto Copley) is sent to hunt Max down.
It may be set in the future, but Elysium‘s themes and social commentary are ripped straight from the present. Things like immigration, the gulf between rich and poor and socialised healthcare are all woven into the story. I would say that Elysium is quite an angry film at heart as is certainly not afraid to confront the audience with the points it wants to make and some uncomfortable truths. Matt Damon is on form here as Max. He’s a likable, sympathetic character that you really feel for. Damon is a damn fine actor and continues to be great in everything I see him in. Same can’t be said for Jodie Foster. I’m not quite sure if she remembers how to act. She’s normally decent, but it seems like she’s gone for cold and removed with Delacourt, overshot the acting sweet spot and ended up next to comatose. The polar opposite of that is Sharlto Copley, who plays the insane and dangerous Kruger with a sick glee. He’s seriously intimidating in this film and it’s another big fat tick in the “Sharlto Copley is the best thing ever” column. He owns the film. I liked Alice Braga’s role. She plays a similar character to the one she played in 2007’s I Am Legend and it works just as well here. You immediately root for her. Props go to William Fichtner’s oily CEO too. What a rat bastard.
As a writer, Blomkamp reminds me of Andrew Niccol. They both usually have a serious social/political point to make which acts as the core for when they’re making a film. They also can both be a little heavy-handed in making that point. Thematically, Elysium is similar to Niccol’s In Time as they both deal with the rich and poor divide and have a Robin Hood/giving back to the masses vibe. Directorially, Blomkamp stands alone. He’s an innovative, intelligent director who manages to inject his films with a energy and heft. He’s great at visuals too. There’s an amazing slo-mo shot of a bodyguard droid getting torn apart by airbursting, splitting rounds that’s absolutely gorgeous. Elysium itself is fantastically designed too. It’s a 2001-esque rotating wheel that’s like Beverly Hills inside. Unlike most modern sci-fis Elysium takes its time building its world and it pays off. The slums of Earth feel very real and Elysium has an intentional artificiality and has a real Stepford feel to it.
Action meatheads like m’self will be gratified to know that Elysium isn’t like a flat Powerpoint presentation of all that is wrong with the world. The film has some kick-ass action sequences too, that prove to be thrilling. Most of the fun is thanks to the awesome sci-fi weaponry and Max’s exoskeleton rig which grants him superhuman strength. Seriously, can Blomkamp do a videogame or two, please? The fun, gory weapons in this and District 9 would be perfect for a game. Somebody call him. Anyway, the action feels like it happens organically, almost as if the story came first and action beats were added where it made sense. Fancy that! Fancy not starting with action sequences and then trying to tie them all together somehow. As with District 9, the effects are amazing and often border on photo-realism. A character has to have pretty severe reconstructive surgery at one point and I was stunned at how amazing and convincing the effects were.
If I had to pick holes in it (and I do, it’s kinda my thing), I would say that Elysium isn’t without its problems. It took me a while to get properly into it, although I’m not sure why. I was appreciating the acting/effects whatever, but I didn’t feel actually involved in it all until later in the film. Perhaps a second viewing would clear that up. Whilst not bashing you over the head with its message like the first half of District 9 did, it still bangs on about its messages a little too much where a deft touch would have sufficed. I suppose this is to really spell these important issues out for the plebs out there. Elysium succumbs to a trend that I’ve noticed in quite a few recent films- clumsy flashbacks and pointless reminders. I’m being intentionally vague here, but we flash back at a pivotal moment in the film to a moment we’ve already seen and should have taken on board. To me, it slightly ruined the moment as the film didn’t have enough confidence in the audience to remember something that happened in the first half of the film. Instead of concluding a thematic arc quietly and neatly, it instead has to draw attention to it through a neon bullhorn, which tarnished the scene slightly.
“”There’s nothing left down here. They have it all on Elysium, food, water, medicine, and they’ll do anything to keep us out. It’s time to change everything.”
Go and see Elysium. It’s a smart, enjoyable sci-fi piece that has a lot to say for itself. After a disappointing summer, Elysium is a breath of fresh air. I look forward to 2015’s Chappie (also starring Sharlto “The Man” Copley) with great anticipation. Highly recommended.