Director Neil Blomkamp made an indelible mark on the Sci-fi genre back in 2009 with his feature film directorial debut, District 9, which even garnered him a Best Picture nomination that year. So, it’s safe to say that his next feature, whatever it would end up being, was going to be highly anticipated.
Blomkamp’s sophmore directorial effort, Elysium, will likely satisfy fans of his previous work and just about anyone that likes a gritty edge to their Sci-fi, despite how very little it does to push the boundaries of the genre or even the boundaries of his very own work. Read the full review after the break.
It is the year 2154, Earth has become tragically over populated and incapable of providing the quality of life some of the more privileged members of society would like. Thus, anyone able to afford it is given passage to Elysium, an orbiting space station that comes with a promise of better living through advanced technology. No more sickness, no more war and no more crime; those are the promises made to the residents of Elysium while the people of Earth are forced to live in poverty. However, when Max (Matt Damon), an Earthbound citizen, learns he only has 5 days to live, he sets out on an impossible mission to reach Elysium and cure himself.
The Sci-fi genre has long been used as a vessel to explore the current social and political dilemmas and/or conflicts that plague our society. Racial, economical, and spiritual themes are the hallmarks of most all great Sci-fi. Gene Roddenberry pioneered this concept when he introduced the world to Star Trek and then nearly every single television show or film to follow would continue the trend…and why not? It is the perfect way to bring up these topical subjects in a way that explores them without ruffling too many feathers and entertains at the same time.
Neil Blomkamp took this approach with District 9, tackling Apartheid in a fresh and interesting way using alien visitors to mirror what was happening in South Africa. With Elysium, the director set his sights on exploring the very touchy subject of immigration and the extreme indifference a more wealthy nation feels towards the less fortunate who live outside their borders. The trick is to be able to combine both entertainment and political ideals in a way that doesn’t feel it either takes its subject lightly and that it doesn’t become too preachy, something Blomkamp perfectly executed with District 9.
There-in lies Elysium’s first major problem, it’s inability to seamlessly blend it’s political and social commentary with it’s more fantastical Sci-fi elements. The best this genre has to offer, such as Star Trek, The Matrix, Battlestar Galatica and Planet of the Apes, they are able to implement their ideas with a subtle touch where subconsciously you are making the connections to the real world. More often than not in Elysium, instead of being dazzled by the film’s amazing visuals and energetic action sequences, you will find yourself sometimes taken out of the moment by blatant references to illegal aliens, border regulations and ethnic hierarchies.
Case in point, during the opening moments of the film we are shown how life is on Earth and then on Elysium, contrasting the radical differences between the two societies, which is executed flawlessly on nearly every level. The parallels are more than obvious and speak for themselves, so did we really need it thrown in our face even further by having all the poor and destitute citizens being of Latin descent and all the rich people up on Elysium be white people?
Nothing is wrong with a little commentary, it’s just that Blomkamp does little to nothing here to integrate his ideas into the story without drawing too much attention to them. We go to the movies to have fun and if we learn something from the experience all the better. But when the message starts to supercede the entertainment value and starts to become heavy handed, the audience will no longer be thinking about how cool that looks or how intense a certain scene is, they will be thinking about how on the nose it is to refer to rogue ships trying to enter Elysium as “Undocumented Ships” or how flagrant it is when the occupants of said ship are gathered up by the police and sent to the deportation center.
Now, don’t let any of that detract from the fact that when it comes down to it, Elysium is still a fun and entertaining film in the end. Many similar elements (sometimes a little too similar for its own good) that made District 9 such a great film are present and accounted for here as well. Blomkamp may have trouble integrating his personal agenda into his works of fiction, but the worlds he creates never cease to be any less awe inspiring.
His vision of a dystopian future is gritty and real, but what he is best at is creating contrasts through his visual style alone. The moment we shift from the skyscraper shanty towns of Earth to the sleek and lush controlled environment of Elysium, we understand how this world works and operates. He is also one of the few filmmakers who seems to be capable of populating his worlds with just the right amount of plausibility so that we are never caught doubting anything being presented to us.
From the droids to all the tools of destruction his characters wield (Blomkamp really does love his crazy weapons), everything feels just a slight bit exaggerated but never to the point where it feels false. Complementing the technical aspects of the film is the human element. This is Blomkamp’s first film with a cast that isn’t just comprised of friends or people found on the street. With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining the feature, he finally has some Hollywood name recognition to exploit and he doesn’t waste their talents.
Matt Damon is an extremely versatile actor, his ability to switch between action hero to a compassionate human being is a major benefit for the character of Max, who is quite probably one of the hardest main protagonists to feel sympathy for in recent memory (Blomkamp really likes his heroes to be extremely flawed individuals). He is a criminal, insanely self centered and is quick to put others in harms way for his own benefit. But Damon adds just enough humanity to the role that you never outright hate him, you just wish he would wake up and see the bigger picture.
The rest of the cast includes a very stoic Jodie Foster as the head of security for Elysium and a sadly underutilized William Fichtner. But the true gem of the film comes in the form of Sharlto Copley as Agent Kruger. First introduced to the world as Wikus in Blomkamps District 9, Copley has had a handful of other roles to stretch his legs in, but only when returning to his friend and director was he able to find yet another juicy role to sink his teeth into, this time playing the villain instead of the hapless hero. Kruger is a formidable character, one that Damon’s Max is absolutely no match for and the anticipation of those two finally clashing is one of the film’s truly remarkable sensations. Copley is absolutely mesmerizing every second he is on screen and will likely go down as one of the best villains in the genre.
Ultimately what saves Elysium though is Blomkamp’s skill behind the camera. As he demonstrated with District 9, the man just knows his way around shooting frantic action scenes and making them feel real as all hell despite the futuristic setting. While the early parts of the film are fairly light on the action side of things, the last two thirds will shake you to your core with a number of imaginative sequences that make the fireworks at the end of his last film seem like test footage. Action junkies and Sci-fi geeks alike should come away from the film pleased no matter what other issues the film may hold for them.
Aside from the aforementioned lack of subtlety with the film’s messaging, the only other negatives that could be leveled against it is that it not only shares many of the ideas found in Blomkamps other feature, but thematically they are downright the same movie. The reason this is so saddening is because unlike District 9, there is a sense of familiarity with the film that makes it feel a tad bit underwhelming. By revisiting not only similar character arcs (Damon’s character goes through the same hardships that Wikus had gone through), but also a similar story structure, one can’t help but be slightly disappointed that Blomkamp was unable to deliver a brand new fresh experience like he did the first time out the gate.
If all this back and forth has got you feeling a little confused on how you should be feeling about the film, well that was kind of the point. After watching Elysium it was undoubtedly a thrilling experience from beginning to end with an assortment of amazing action set pieces, brilliant special effects work and features one of the best villains of the year with the Kruger character. But leaving that theater, there was still a lingering feeling that it wasn’t as incredible as it could have been, as it should have been. That despite it’s obvious technical merits, that it just didn’t hit you like a ton of bricks like it should have.
Whether you can chalk that up to its shortcomings in the script department or Blomkamp’s own inability to create something fresh is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure, this is a film that needs to be seen in theaters and Blomkamp is a director that needs to be supported. He may have missed the mark slightly this time around, but his failure to deliver a new experience is still better than 90% of the rest of the garbage Hollywood has been shoveling to us for the past decade.