Neill Blomkamp does it again with Elysium, a stunning piece of sci-fi entertainment in the vein of his previous hit, District 9. While not quite the fresh vision and revelation that that movie was since it owes much to it, Elysium is nonetheless a superlative effort from one of today’s most original and exciting filmmakers.
Set in the year 2154, we learn that humanity has been divided into two classes: the poor who live on an oppressed, overpopulated Earth and the rich who live on a pristine space station called Elysium (so named for the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology). Elysium is beyond prosperous – it’s a place where illness is no more. An early scene depicts a Med-Pod with a gorgon emblem on it (perpetuating the Grecian influence), which has the seemingly magical ability to cure any illness. The people of Earth can only hope of one day making it to the promised land that floats in the skies above.
One such individual is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon; Behind the Candelabra). A reformed car thief, Max dreams of earning enough money to buy a ticket to Elysium. His plans go drastically awry however, when an accident at work leaves him with only a few days left to live. Determined to survive, Max resolves to gain access to Elysium by whatever means necessary in order to use the advanced healing technology that only the rich have access to.
This determination puts Max in the firing line of Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster; Carnage), an ambitious woman with an intriguing accent and firm ‘stop the boats’ policy regarding incoming ships full of refugees from Earth. Delacourt is content to usurp higher authority and activate sleeper agents on Earth to actively destroy such incoming vessels.
One of these agents is Kruger (Sharlto Copley; The A-Team), an unhinged and darkly comical villain whose madcap muscle is juxtaposed to the cold and business-like Delacourt. Copley, who previously turned Wikus van der Merwe into an iconic character in District 9, makes the film crackle with electricity whenever he’s on screen. Next to Blomkamp’s worldbuilding, Kruger is the best thing about Elysium and one of the more memorable villains of the year.
Speaking of which, the worldbuilding is exceptional. Think the grimy, filthy look of District 9 but extrapolated far into the future, with production design drawing on an expanded budget that marries both practical and computer effects while being backed by Ryan Amon’s complementary score. Naturally, the sequences on Elysium itself – which looks like a mix between a hubcap and a Halo – aren’t nearly so dirty, being high on clean corridors, luxurious mansions and luscious green landscapes. It’s clear that Blomkamp has a vivid imagination, but it’s the small details which bring the film to life and are a joy to discover.
Abandoning the pseudo-documentary style of District 9, Blomkamp still employs a variety of unusual camera techniques which enliven the screen and make it compelling to watch. That said, the shaky cam does return for added grit but if you found it tolerable in District 9 then you shouldn’t have issues with it here. It results in a visceral and in-your-face action experience, with aggressive robots, exploding bodies and powerful weaponry.
It’s at this point that I come to Elysium’s message. Just as District 9 was an obvious allegory of the apartheid era, Elysium is primarily a metaphor for universal healthcare. Tangential issues like class divides and immigration are also explored, but all of these merely serve the kick-ass action on display. It’s not particularly deep sci-fi, as the social commentary is bare bones and superficial – but it does make its point – and the plot doesn’t slow to explain how every piece of technology manages to work. If you pulled your hair out over the contrivances, ‘plot holes’ and unanswered questions of District 9 then you may have to adjust your expectations. For everyone else, Elysium is a superior refuge from the mire of sequels, reboots and remakes on offer in the modern age.
Drawing on District 9’s look and feel, Elysium is yet another terrific sci-fi action outing from Neill Blomkamp.