When newcomer Neill Blomkamp released his debut movie in 2009, he set some pretty high expectations for himself. “District 9” was a stellar piece of science fiction, with incredible visuals, quality action and real social commentary wrapped up in an emotional human story. It’s safe to say that the bar started very high for his follow-up project.
“Elysium,” which has been in the works for four years, is a continuation of the visual and thematic language of “District 9,” and thankfully it manages to live up to the hype — but not exceed it.
Set in the year 2154, “Elysium” presents a divided society — the poor are left floundering on a derelict and disease-ridden Earth, while the rich live it up on the titular space habitat that is a lush, controlled environment devoid of all hardship. Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con, is forced by terrible circumstances to launch a dangerous assault on Elysium, and decide the fate of the human race.
The story of “Elysium” is pretty straight forward, but it’s still immensely enjoyable and has quite a bit of substance to it. Blomkamp explores a lot of really interesting societal and technological ideas in the film and does so with both confidence and intelligence.
But possibly the best thing about “Elysium” is the fascinating world that Blomkamp introduces us to. Much like “District 9,” this is a dark and dirty vision of the future, but it’s not quite a dystopia, and it’s so well developed that it feels totally real. Although many of the sci-fi concepts in the film are inherently fantastical, the presentation is so good that the audience buys everything on screen. Blomkamp is a master of believability, which in the end is more important than realism.
Matt Damon does an excellent job as the lead. One of Blomkamp’s strengths is writing less-than-pleasant protagonists that are likeable and sympathetic, and Damon’s performance brings Max to life in a way that is totally engaging. He’s great at playing a downtrodden everyman, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to become invested in his struggle. The expertly handled flashback scenes also contribute to this.
William Fichter and Jodie Foster are both terrific, but Sharlto Copley -– who plays Damon’s primary antagonist, a renegade agent called Kruger -– steals the show. This role is so different from Copley’s previous work, and yet in many ways he channels the energy and humor of Wikus from “District 9.” That being said, Kruger is a whole different beast; an over-the-top character in the best of ways, he has such an imposing and terrifying presence on screen, adding a real sense of menace and danger to the movie.
“Elysium” solidifies my opinion that Blomkamp will go on to become one of the best science-fiction directors of all time. The visual effects in this film are just incredible. Everything looks utterly real, from the war-torn Earth, to all of the awesome-looking robots, weapons and spacecraft, to Elysium itself, which is the subject of some unbelievably stunning pieces of cinematography. There are also some unique, almost video game-y feats of camera work and editing that add a real sense of style to the action sequences.
The production and sound design are outstanding — leaps and bounds ahead of recent successes in this department, like “Prometheus” and “Pacific Rim.” The soundtrack is similar to “District 9,” with soaring vocalizations, heavy orchestras and pounding electronics, but it all comes together into this cohesive whole that gives “Elysium” real scale and impact. Blomkamp exercises makes terrific use of silence in key scenes as well, which balances the sound palette and suits the tone of the movie.
Blomkamp’s style — the ambition, the thematic focus, the world-building, the aesthetic and the design — is so distinct and fresh in the Hollywood sci-fi landscape that it’s a crime his vision for the “Halo” movie was never realized.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Although the world of “Elysium” is really well developed and presented, it’s evident that only a fraction of the work the filmmakers put into this universe made its way onto the screen. Whether constrained by budget or runtime, the potential of this concept is practically unlimited, and it’s hard not to feel that so much more could have been done with it. Obviously it’s impossible to show everything, and a sequel wouldn’t really be appropriate, but it would have been nice to really explore this ruined and divided future to the fullest extent.
Also, “Elysium” doesn’t feel quite as new and inventive as “District 9.” That’s not to say it’s not well thought out, enjoyable or compelling, but Blomkamp’s previous movie had such a unique directing style (blending documentary with traditional cinema), along with a truly heart-breaking emotional arc for the protagonist. “Elysium” almost recaptures this magic, but not quite.
Regarding the acting, Alice Braga is pretty bland throughout –- her character feels rather clichéd and unnecessary; although, her arc does pay off at the end. Wagner Moura is also very hard to understand throughout the movie, but his performance is okay. And unfortunately, both Fichter and Foster are drastically under used, which is a real shame given their immense talent.
Directing missteps are few and far between, but the camera is shaken around a bit too much. Not only is it very jarring, but it makes it hard to discern what is happening in certain scenes. The action scenes, while competent, also don’t feel as dynamic or hard-hitting as they did in “District 9.”
GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
Released by TriStar Pictures, “Elysium” was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Blomkamp, Bill Block and Simon Kinberg. It stars Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura and William Fichtner.