A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2013

ELYSIUM jjj
½

2013, R, 109  mins.

 

Matt Damon as Max  /  Alice Braga as Frey  /  Wagner Moura as Spider  /  Diego Luna as Julio  /  Sharlto Copley as Kruger  /  Faran Tahir as President Patel  /  Jodie Foster as Delacourt  /  William Fichtner as Carlyle

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp

If 2009’s game-changing sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9 – a sleeper box office summer hit and a critical darling that went on to earn multiple Oscar nominations – introduced the cinematic world to the talent of South African director Neill Blomkamp then ELYSIUM certainly all but solidifies and confirms him as one of the pre-eminent action/sci-fi filmmakers of his generation.  

Even though his newest film lacks the radical freshness and novelty of DISTRICT 9, ELYSIUM still emerges miles ahead of other similar genre efforts for how superbly it amalgams cutting edge visual effects, dynamically staged action, and, yes, contemplative ideas-based science fiction that manages to tell a futuristic tale that slyly comments on our current state of affairs.  Not many other directors out there are as attuned to achieve this difficult task as well as Blomkamp. 

The modestly budgeted – but never once looked that way – DISTRICT 9 was a tale of the not-too-distant future in which humans subjugated a recently arrived extra-terrestrial population (if anything, it was a sharply drawn and intelligently handled Apartheid and immigration allegory).  ELYSIUM is kind of a continuation of those themes, while more ostensibly dealing with the notion of the widespread and nearly impossible to overcome economic and social gap that exists between the upper one per cent versus the lower classed 99 per cent.  To even further entrench his tale of tomorrow’s story of class warfare, Blomkamp even throws in some commentary on modern day health care woes, or more specifically, how those that have wealth have it, whereas those that are penniless don’t have it.  Like great examples of science fiction, ELYSIUM is a portal into the future that speaks towards the problems of the present.  It’s perhaps telling that when Blomkamp was asked about whether he thought that his film was how he thought the world would be in 140 years, he responded, “This is today.  This is now.” 

Granted, tales of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots are as old as the movies, but ELYSIUM perhaps makes up for its lack of overt novelty here by still grounding its premise within a fantastically staged film universe.  In the dystopian Earth of 2154 there exists two primary classes of people: First, the ultra-wealthy and disease-free class that live on a massive space station known as Elysium, which offers a relative utopian existence for all that reside there.  It is the brain child of the Armadyne Corporation, ruled over with an iron fist by Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who defends her mega-rich Elysium citizens via any means necessary…and I do mean any.  The allure of the space station is insatiable, especially considering that most homes have special Med-Pods that can detect and instantly eliminate any type of injury or illness.  Pretty neat. 

 

 

Now, as for those not privileged to live up in the station?  Well, these one per cent remain on the ravaged, scorched, and overpopulated Earth, which is comprised mostly of manual laborers, rampaging gangs, criminals, and, yes, those devastated by disease and poverty with no virtual hope of elevating their stations in life.  Blomkamp and the team that worked with him on DISTRICT 9 – including production designer Philip Ivey – evoke a futuristic Los Angeles (actually, Mexico City doubling for it) of grimy, dirty, and endlessly decaying living conditions that’s a highly effective foil to the pristine, clean, and chic beauty of the Elysium neighborhoods.  The greatness of the film lies in how well and immediately Blomkamp establishes these two distinct worlds and grounds viewers in them.  You feel like you're a part of this world right from the get-go 

From here we are introduced to Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) an ex-con trying to go legit and stay away from his parole officer (who happens to be a pill-dispensing robot, in a droll little scene).  He works a soul-sucking job in a factory constructing police droids, but a freak accident one day exposes him to lethal dosages of radiation that will kill him in six days.  Obviously, Elysium has Med-Pods, which would make curing his condition a possibility.  Alas, Max has no way of getting there…that is until he hooks up with a old pal (Diego Luna) who, in turn, takes Max to a smuggler (Wagner Moura) that gives him special biomechanical implants – comprised of a make-shift metal exoskeleton graphed to his body – that gives the sick Max a huge boost in strength and speed.  There’s a catch: In exchange for this, Max has to help the smuggler literally take vital Elysium Intel from the mind of Armadyne’s CEO (William Fichtner) and, once successful, he will assist Max in getting up to Elysium.  Things become more complicated for Max when he reconnects with an old flame, Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse whose daughter is dying of Leukemia, leaving Max conflicted as to whether to help himself or the past-love of his life. 

ELYSIUM is a bravura showpiece of visual effects and location shooting ingenuity, but Blomkamp is wise enough never to allow the film’s impressive and awe-inspiring imagery (he had three times the budget of DISTRICT 9 to work with here) suffocate the story and characters.  Even when Max adorns his mechanical suit, becoming a New Age mechanical Frankenstein's monster on a mission, the film never loses sight of the humanity of its characters.  Damon’s performance here is tricky, as he evokes in Max neither a good-natured hero, per se, nor a reprehensibly selfish loner…but more of an intriguing middle ground.  More than most other granite jawed action stars, Damon always manages to keep his ass-kicking super heroes grounded, vulnerable, and with an everyman appeal to compliment their lethal dexterity.  His scenes with the very effective Braga (poised, beautiful, and always emotionally authentic) give ELYSIUM a nice dramatic undercurrent amidst all of its fantastical imagery. 

Then there’s Jodi Foster, who for once gets to sink her teeth into an unrelentingly hostile and venomous antagonist role, which she appears to relish.  Much has been made of her peculiar diction in her scenes, which is perhaps not as large of an issue as the fact that Delacourt is kind of an underwritten and one-dimensional baddie.  Thankfully, picking up the slack for her is the presence of the great Sharlto Copley (who also appeared in DISTRICT 9) as Kruger, a merc for hire that works for Delecourt to eliminate anyone that wishes to enter Elysium...in the most sadistically icky manner possible.  There have been howling and freakish villains in action films before, but Copley steps it up to a whole other level of monstrous nastiness here.  Kruger is pure evil, and Copley seems equal to the task of making every scene he occupies burst with an unpredictable level of edgy madness.   

ELYSIUM builds towards a sensational series of sustained and fever pitched action sequences that Blomkamp knows how to handle with just the right levels of in-your-face chaos (the director is attuned with matching the film’s more introspective moments with balls-to-the-wall mayhem alongside the best genre directors around).  By the end of the film I was left with feelings that, again, ELYSIUM felt more rigidly conventional and derivative than Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9, but then again, most recent sci-fi films aren’t that film’s equal either.  ELYSIUM does, though, save itself from its minor faults by emerging as a remarkably immersive sci-fi futuristic thriller that further showcases Blomkamp as the real deal.  It not only creates a magnificent movie world to ethereally lose yourself in (which is what all great escapist entertainments should do), but it also manages to have something to say while entrenching viewers in it.  ELYSIUM, as a result, is an exhilarating and bombastically rendered feast for the eyes that just happens to have thoughtful thematic undertones that make you think.   

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