The rare summer blockbuster these days that manages to run under two hours and avoid 3D, Elysium gets points for those two factors even before you begin to appreciate the movie itself. Filmmaker Neill Blomkamp is able to raise the wow factor in his sophomore feature, keeping the social commentary aspect from his prior flick District 9 and instead embedding it in a more overt action film this time around. With a bigger budget and more resources, Blomkamp is courting a slightly more mainstream audience, but he hasn’t lost his edge either. I’d argue that he’s just as unsubtle in his political satire and social commentary here, though overall the final product that is Elysium isn’t quite as memorable as District 9. This is still a very good film though, and easily one of the most satisfying releases of the summer. Armed with Matt Damon in the lead role, Jodie Foster as an icy menace, and longtime collaborator Sharlto Copley as one of the year’s more memorable villains, Blomkamp has a crowd pleaser on his hands. While those hung up on the politics of the flick will be re-engaging the 99% vs the 1% debate that the most recent Presidential election brought up, those just looking for a good time at the movies will be thrilled with what this has to offer.
The year is 2154. Earth has pretty much been ruined, leaving the biggest divide between the haves and the have nots ever. The rich have fled the planet for a space station named Elysium, while everyone else is still on Earth, resigned to a life of poverty and filth. Some dream of moving on up, but it’s all but impossible. Every so often the desperate get on ships and try to illegally immigrate to Elysium, but Delacourt (Foster), the head of security on the installation, has no qualms about shooting them down or having them killed. Back on Earth, reformed criminal Max (Damon) is just trying to eek out a living as a factory grunt. As a child, he used to dream of going up there and promised it to his best friend Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga), but now he’s just trying to stay out of jail. Plans change when he’s accidentally exposed to lethal amounts of radiation on the job, enough to kill him in a matter of days. Angry, desperate, and with nothing to lose, Max decides to take a job for the crime lord Spider (Wagner Moura) along with his friend Julio (Diego Luna). Spider can get him onto Elysium, where Max can be cured, but only if Max is willing to do some dangerous stuff. As Max, armed with an exo-suit that makes him super strong, makes his way towards Elysium, Delacourt becomes aware of his threat and summons a sleeper cell named Kruger (Copley) to stop him. Violence ensues…
Matt Damon isn’t going to win an Oscar for this performance, but he gives you more than you usually get from your garden variety action hero. Damon capably transitions his character from reluctant hero to planetary savior without particularly making you roll your eyes, which isn’t especially surprising. The strong screen presence that he has definitely plays a part in getting you invested in Max’s quest for survival. He’s been better, but this is still very solid work. Jodie Foster doesn’t have quite as big a part as you’d expect, but she does play a great ice queen. She may not be on screen the whole time, but Foster does make her scenes count. On that same token, Sharlto Copley plays a badass hobo jedi type villain and just chews the scenery in a tremendously captivating way. Copley is having a ball, and you almost want to cheer him on. Alice Braga and Diego Luna are mostly wasted as Max’s companions, while William Fichtner is mainly here to look like Mitt Romney (not an accident, I think) and treat Max like crap. The rest of the cast includes the aforementioned Wagner Moura as well as Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, and Emma Tremblay, among others. Still, this one is all about Damon, Foster, and Copley, and they don’t disappoint at all.
Most of my issues with Neill Blomkamp writing and direction are still on hand here, though instead of it being contained within a unique and original science fiction tale it’s simply within an entertaining sci-fi action flick. Blomkamp still hammers his points home and loves to show you similar imagery over and over again, but he sure knows how to tell you a thrilling story. His screenplay is a bit more generic here, but it’s still rather solid. The direction is where I liked Blomkamp the best here though, as he’s able to tackle a large scale story with no issues at all. I know he’s said he’s uninterested in making something like a Star Trek or Star Wars sequel, but he’s just the type of filmmaker who’d be perfect for the job (I wouldn’t mind him still getting a crack at Halo again either). Regardless of that, I’m very eager to see where his career goes from here, as he’s capable of greatness each time out. He won’t be an Oscar nominee for this one (though some of the techs will probably be in play), but he’ll likely be nominated by the Academy again before too long if he keeps this up.
Elysium may suffer slightly from being incredibly unsubtle about it’s social commentary and stripped of that is more or less just an action flick, but it’s a very good time at the movies. Neill Blomkamp is one of the more unique voices able to work in Hollywood today, with this just solidifying that fact. This may not inspire quite as much adoration as District 9 did, but Elysium is likely to be a solid late summer hit. Summer blockbusters are usually too long, too gaudy, and too dumb…this film manages to avoid all of those traps. The movie is far from perfect, but it’s an easy one to give a thumbs up to. If you want a little bit more from your sci-fi blockbusters, you’ve come to the right place. Take it from me…this is good stuff.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!