Former TV commercial director Neill Blomkamp turned his hand to feature filmmaking a few years ago with the terrific District 9, a deft combination of political and sci-fi ideas mixed with exciting action brought to life with impressive (for the relatively low $30 million budget) visual effects.
Now he’s back with the enigmatically titled Elysium, a much grander scale (read: expensive) sci-fi action film that might lack a certain quality that made District 9 so special but is still an admirably ambitious, visually spectacular and often very entertaining film nonetheless.
Set in the year 2154, Elysium takes place in a world where two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on the immaculate space station of the title – enjoying everything from perfect homes to “med bays” that can cure illness instantly – and everyone else i.e. the poor who live back down on a ruined and over-populated Earth.
We specifically follow Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker who gets exposed to radiation so in order to try and cure himself he attempts to find a way onto the heavily guarded Elysium up above. In his desperation he accepts a mission from a rebel faction of the population that not only could save his own life but bring equality to the lives of everyone.
There have been many movies in recent years tackling pressing environmental issues, from Pixar’s WALL-E to this year’s Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner Oblivion, to name but a couple. Elysium is one of the more successful examples of taking these issues and exaggerating them on a big scale, with Blomkamp’s dystopian world at once out of reach and all too believable.
Amid the dazzling special effects and (often surprisingly brutal) violence the film tackles ideas of wealth (in)equality, a government’s influence over its people and fairness in healthcare. It can sometimes feel like its banging you over the head with its messages and ultimately just uses them as a backdrop (excuse?) for the action. Nevertheless it’s nice to have a big-budget film like this that actually has something going on between the ears.
It takes a while to get going, spending much of its first half establishing the world and its rules with some heavy-handed exposition. But once it hits its stride action-wise, it’s highly entertaining stuff, all leading towards an exhilarating last half hour that – some issues with unnecessary shaky cam aside – jumps a final hurdle at which a lot of summer blockbusters fall.
Those who’ve seen District 9 – and I imagine many of those interested in seeing Elysium will be big fans – will find many overall similarities in the plot. Indeed this does hit many of the same beats as that film; for instance, the main character being on the run with a physically enhanced body and the ability to use special technology. And in a way it takes what was done then and explodes it onto a bigger, clearly far more expensive canvas. It means that this isn’t quite the original sci-fi we were presented when Blomkamp introduced himself as a filmmaker. It provides more spectacle but maybe not as much heart and soul.
What Elysium does have over District 9, however, are some very clear villains. We have Jodie Foster as a sort of high-ranking government minister charged with protecting Elysium’s borders from illegal immigrants. Her ropey British accent threatens her coldly threatening quality but she effectively represents the selfish, controlling government who literally rule from the sky. Though technically on the same side, her character is the antithesis of the ruthless and frankly badass Kruger (played by District 9 star Sharlto Copley), a kind of governmental assassin sent to take care of whatever problem is occurring back down on Earth. With his grubby appearance, menacing stare and heavy South African accent, he’s a rather special villain that provides an interesting dynamic to the action as he chases down Damon’s determined Max (who is looking like his character from Eurotrip has had some bad luck in life), later on providing for one of the summer movie season’s most visually unique fight sequences.
It’s perhaps inevitable that bigger isn’t necessarily better with Blomkamp’s sophomore effort. Indeed Elysium is somewhat of a disappointment after the level he reached with District 9. However, he has still created a fascinating, fully realized sci-fi world that looks stunning in a film that admirably aspires to be more than your average blockbuster.
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Elysium is released in UK cinemas on August 21st.