In 2009, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut “District 9” punched audiences in the stomach with its gut-wrenching realism and gripping social commentary. The emotional bruising left in its wake didn’t just seize viewer attention though, it captured Hollywood’s too. Struck by Blomkamp’s creativity with a smaller budget, the industry decided to offer him a larger one for his sophomore effort “Elysium.” Working inside the Hollywood machine can be tricky however, since directors often compensate for greater resources with major creative compromises. What’s miraculous about Blomkamp’s flick is that it doesn’t seem like he sacrificed anything because “Elysium” is a grim, arresting picture.
Blomkamp’s tale takes place in the year 2154, where Earth has become polluted and overpopulated. People stuck there suffer crime, illness, and government oppression, as they toil away in dangerous jobs. Meanwhile the extremely wealthy live on a habitat orbiting the planet called Elysium, where there is fresh air, clean water, and medical devices that can cure any malady. A ruthless administrator named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) protects this community from riffraff by hiring thugs such as the psychotic assassin Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to do her dirty work.
Our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon), an orphan trying his best to play the shoddy hand life has dealt him. As we learn through flashbacks, Max has always dreamed of traveling to Elysium with his best friend Frey (Alice Braga). However his desire to get to there becomes a lot more urgent after discovering that he only has a few days to live. Desperate to heal himself, Max vows to get there by any means necessary. Unfortunately Delacourt and Kruger learn of his scheme, and attempt everything in their power to stop him.
Like “District 9,” this film is engaging because it’s just the right amount of believable. Technology in the movie is a fascinating hybrid of current devices with futuristic upgrades and space-age stuff that will blow your mind. A refreshing thing is that Blomkamp trusts your intelligence by dropping you into his unique world, without over explaining how everything works. He lets you soak it all in and use your imagination, providing definition only when absolutely needed. The result is a more immersive experience for the viewer.
Another fascinating tact that Blomkamp uses is to accentuate the differences between Earth and Elysium from an aesthetic perspective. Scenes on Earth are dusty and dingy with a lot of handheld camerawork, whereas Elysium is bright and clean with a greater number of stationary shots. In general though, Blomkamp relies way too heavily on the handheld camera. Not only is his shaky cam distracting, but frustratingly it prevents you from seeing all the neat happenings in the background of each scene as well.
Similar to “District 9,” this picture isn’t just a straightforward adventure, it’s a sci-fi movie with messages. “Elysium” has a lot of weighty points to make about how race, class, violence, and healthcare affect our society now and how they could impact us in a dystopian future like this one. Sadly the subtext is a bit excessive and some of these lessons get lost while you’re paying attention to the main narrative. This film has more to say to a global audience than “District 9” since it’s not just an allegory for Apartheid, although “Elysium” is ultimately less effective as social commentary because it’s so busy.
Despite this gripe, Blomkamp’s picture is still a compelling yarn filled with complex characters, sickening violence, and brilliant social critique that proves he’s not just a one-hit-wonder. Few working directors out there are as effective as Blomkamp at telling a serious, yet entertaining story with a moral. He truly is a master of sci-fi with something to say, and I look forward to seeing what his next film's big message is.
My Grade: A-...as in Almost There! A Few Tweaks Away from Total Awesomeness!