I have to admit that "District 9" is one of my favorite films of all time. It also qualifies as one of the greatest science fiction films in the last thirty years. That's a hell of debut from director Neill Blomkamp and as a result, along with some timely promotion from "Lord Of The Rings" maestro Peter Jackson, "District 9" turned out to be the sleeper hit of 2009. Four years later and we finally have his much anticipated follow-up, another dystopian science fiction piece known as "Elysium." The good news is that Blomkamp's sophomore effort is, for the most part, a wonderful film, full of visual splendor, big ideas, and some fine performances. The bad news is that, unlike "District 9", there are a few notable flaws that keep Elysium a goodly distance from being another masterpiece in the vein of Blomkamp's debut four years ago.
"Elysium" is set in the year 2154 and in this bleak future we find that ninety-nine percent of the world's population lives on a desolate, polluted, and poverty-stricken Earth, eaking out a living through menial labor or engaging in a black market life of crime to get by. The other one percent have decided to abandon Earth for a circular space station called Elysium. Like the paradise for which it is named, Elysium is a utopia, free of sickness, stress, or violence. It's stability and protection is overseen by the icy Defense Secratary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, sporting a very distracting accent). In a not-so-subtle parallel to current immigration issues, Delacourt employs every strategy at her command to keep the dirty unwashed from soiling her paradise, even going so far as to destroy undocumented shuttles attempting to land on Elysium to gain access to the almost magical health care located therein.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, we are introduced to Max (Matt Damon), a former criminal struggling to stay on the straight and narrow. When an accident at the factory in which he works doses him with a lethal dose of radiation, Max is forced to take up with his old confederates again in order to sneak aboard Elysium to get the lifesaving medical care he requires. Along for the ride are his childhod friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her daughter who need to get to Elysium for their own reasons. Standing in their way, aside from an army of government robots, is the brutal Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a pschotic covert agent of Delacourt's who has an agenda of his own.
There's more to the story, of course, but that's the gist of it. What I really enjoyed about "Elysium" was the attention to detail Blomkamp and his crew pay to creating a realistic future world. "Elysium" is budgeted at about $115 million and every cent of it is up on the screen. Nobody does realistic looking special effects like Blomkamp and as an audience member you find yourself quickly immersed in this incredible world. All of the technology, the weapons, and even the spaceships look functional; a combination of futuristic and lived-in not seen since perhaps "Blade Runner."
Blomkamp also excells with the action sequences. He has a hard R rating to play with and he puts it to full use here! There's a brutality to the gun battles and fistacuffs that adds yet another layer to the realistic grit of the piece. Unfortunately Blomkamp falls a little too in love with the shaky-cam conceit, especially toward the end, but by then you've already either bought into the film's aesthetic or you haven't. I just wished we had a few more wide shots and a smoother camera movements to augment the admittedly awesome fight choreography.
The performances are fine across the board. Damon is a very good as an essentially selfish man forced to serve the greater good in order to save himself. Copley is dynamite as the psychotic Kruger, a 180 degree turn from his nebbish anti-hero in "District 9." He is a truly scary villain. Doing great supporting work is Braga as Max's childhood sweetheart and kudos to Diego Luna as Max's best friend and Wagner Moura as the resistance leader Spider. Moura gets a special mention because at first his constant yelling annoyed the hell out of me, but Moura's natural charisma grew on me as the film went on. Finally, William Fichtner steals every bit of his scant screen time as the jerky boss of the plant at which Max works. Nobody does "looking-down-his-nose-at-those-he-considers-inferior" better than Fichtner and his John Carlyle is one smug piece of work.
In fact the only somewhat disappointing performance in the whole film comes from one of the best actresses in the last thirty years. Jodie Foster, aside from that distracting accent, never really gets a handle on her character. Delacourt is as two dimensional as it gets, which is something I thought I would never say about an actress the caliber of Foster. Part of the problem is that Foster's Delacourt doesn't get nearly enough screen time to register as anything but a cardboard villain.
And that's a symptom of the primary flaw of "Elysium" as a whole: Blomkamp's narrative is blatantly one-sided. He wants you to side with the downtrodden from the get-go, but he goes about it in the quickest way possible by ignoring the development of the bad guys. We don't get to spend a lot of time on Elysium and, aside from the wonderful medical machines it has, we get to see little of the mechinations or the wonders of this paradise, nor to we get to delve into any of the residents of Elysium. In this "Elysium" reminds me a lot of "Avatar" where the three dimensional good guys go up against the very two dimensional bad guys.
The other issue involves the film's pacing. Unlike "District 9" where Blomkamp seemed confident in letting the story and characters develop into a natural flow that combined well with a series of escalating (and exciting) action sequences, "Elysium" seems to be in a hurry to get to where it wants to go and as a result the character development and story suffer a bit.
That said, during a summer of "meh" action films and family-friendly cinema, "Elysium" serves as a refreshing bit of science fiction filmmaking that is both exciting and adult in nature. It may not be flawless, but as far as I'm concerned Neill Blomkamp is two for two in his young filmmaking career and is definitely someone to watch in the future. Note: "Elysium" doesn't seem to have the box office legs of "District 9" so see this in the theater as soon as you can.
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