by Steve Habrat
In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp took moviegoers by storm with his hugely original directorial debut District 9, a grungy science-fiction gift from the gods that acted as an allegory for apartheid in Johannesburg. Made with only $30 million, District 9 went on to make $37 million its opening weekend and earn almost unanimous praise from both critics and audiences for being one of the most unique and human science fiction films to come around in years. District 9 then went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, a huge surprise considering it was a summer action movie. After a grueling four-year wait, Blomkamp finally returns to the science fiction genre with Elysium, which finds the director digging deeper into the politics that he hinted at with District 9. While not quite as invigorating as District 9, Elysium still finds Blomkamp at the top of his game, crafting another pedal-to-the-metal sci-fi thriller around heady ideas and left-wing politics. Elysium doesn’t shy away from current hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class warfare, but the film still finds plenty of time to keep audiences hooked with a full story, immaculate special effects, and a handful of extraordinary performances from a group of gifted actors. Did I mention that it is also pretty powerful?
Elysium begins in 2154, with Earth being an overcrowded and polluted wasteland. The human population has been split into two groups: the wealthy, who have fled Earth and moved to the ritzy space community Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves in the slums on Earth. Among those living in the slums is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ex-con who is trying to get his life back on track. Max spends his days working a factory job at the Armadyne Corporation, the company that is responsible for building Elysium, and his evenings dreaming of moving to the glamorous city in the sky with his childhood love, Frey (played by Alice Braga). After being exposed to deadly levels of radiation at work, Max learns that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan to make his way to Elysium, where there exists Med-Pods, which are able to cure human beings of any illness or injury in seconds. Max seeks out his old friends, Spider (played by Wagner Moura) and Julio (played by Diego Luna), who have ways of sneaking Max into the heavily guarded space community. Spider agrees to help Max under one condition: that he helps steal valuable information from Carlyle (played by William Fichtner), Armadyne’s shady CEO. With his strength diminishing by the minute, Spider provides Max with an exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength to carry out the mission. As Max closes in Carlyle, he realizes that the information Spider is after will change the world forever. However, waiting for Max is Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the iron-fisted defense secretary of Elysium, and her psychotic mercenary, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), who will stop at nothing to keep Max out of Elysium.
Ditching the found footage approach that he used in District 9, Blomkamp allows Elysium to unfold in a much more conventional manner. The bulk of it isn’t comprised by expository interviews or shaky news reports from an alien warzone, but rather classic storytelling that retains the same antsy sense of urgency that made District 9 such an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Elysium means business and it is bound and determined to give you your money’s worth, especially in the action and effects department. At about the forty-minute mark, Blomkamp sends the bullets and bombs flying, and he does it in the most eye-popping way imaginable. He has guard droids getting blown to bits by exploding bullets in slow motion, spaceships zooming in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with heat seeking missiles hot on their tail, and a climatic fistfight between Kruger and Max that is sure to take your breath away. It should be noted that even though Elysium is a late summer movie, Blomkamp certainly doesn’t soften up his violence. Humans are torn to shreds by an array of advanced weaponry, one character gets a whole blown right into their face, another gets stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, and the scene in which Max gets fitted with the exoskeleton has a few graphic moments that will make you cringe.
In addition to his refusal to soften on the breakneck pacing and the flesh-ripping violence, Blomkamp also refuses to back down from his politics, which he kept largely subdued in District 9. Ever since the trailer debuted, Elysium has been taking quite a bit of heat from the right wing for its blatant left wing political standpoint. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, Blomkamp tackles hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class division/warfare, things that are currently filling news headlines as you read this. While you may think that this would automatically turn anyone with a right wing viewpoint off, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. It really isn’t difficult to see where Blomkamp stands on these issues, but it’s the way he places them within the action that is truly admirable. He almost presents them as a cautionary warning rather than an awkward lecture. A few of these topics are wisely pushed to the foreground, mostly implied rather than outwardly addressed, which is nice because it prevents the film from really forcing itself on those who disagree with the side that the film is taking, but perhaps the most controversial topic of all (health care) doesn’t budge. The most relieving aspect of all is that Blomkamp gives these ideas a huge amount of emotional weight, and by the end, it is almost impossible to say that you weren’t shaken up at least once.
As far as the performances are concerned, Blomkamp doesn’t fall back on a group of unknowns to sit behind the wheel of the film. Unlike District 9, there are a handful of A-list thespians headlining Elysium. Damon is in full action mode as our dying hero Max, a guy who longs for a place in paradise. It doesn’t take us long to like his blue-collar ex-con and he has our full support as he fights his way into the sky. Jodie Foster is ice cold as the ruthless defense secretary of Elysium, a cruel and scheming monster who has no problem shooting down shuttles carrying handfuls of innocent Earth civilians. Sharlto Copley goes full crazy and makes off with the entire film as the scene-stealing bad-boy Kruger, a psychotic mercenary who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission. If you thought Copley was fantastic as the bumbling hero Wikus in District 9, wait until you lay eyes on this bloodcurdling performance. After the disaster that was The Lone Ranger, William Fichtner completely redeems himself as the slimy CEO of the Armadyne Corporation. It’s a small role but he plays it with fire in his eyes. Braga is fragile as Frey, the heartbroken and exhausted love interest of Max. Moura is another scene-stealer as the hobbling smuggler Spider, who gets a chance to act as a sidekick to Damon’s ass-kicking Max, and Luna shows off a soft side as Julio, a car thief with a heart of gold.
At a brief hour and fifty minutes, Elysium has quite a bit of storyline to go around. There isn’t a second wasted in its surprisingly brief runtime and you’ll never find your attention starting to wander. It balances every single character and side plot perfectly, all to come together at a hugely satisfying climax that is sure to put your emotions to the test. All of the white-knuckle action is complimented with a grimy electronic score from Ryan Amon, who is able to smoothly shift from rusted synthesizers to swelling orchestral blasts. Overall, Elysium isn’t the game-changer that District 9 ended up being, but then again, that was a tough act to follow. It is, however, a consistent, clever, thrilling, poignant, and self-assured work from a true science-fiction visionary. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another four years for Mr. Blomkamp to exhilarate us with his wild imagination.