It’s impossible to talk about Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium without first talking about District 9. In 2009 the South African writer/director made his debut with the small-budget science-fiction movie and completely shocked the world with beautiful mix of parable and genre filmmaking. The title earned near–universal praise, and wound up receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.
Any film that Blomkamp made as his second feature was going to be born in the shadow of District 9 and impossibly high expectations. Elysium, sadly, doesn’t eclipse its predecessor, but it’s still a strong follow-up and an engaging piece of original science-fiction.
Elysium, like the best examples of sci-fi, has something to say about the status of our current world, but in trying to fully create the metaphor the movie’s reach exceeds its grasp, and the result is some unfortunate plot holes. Making a statement about global issues like immigration and health care, the film is set in a near future where all of the rich and powerful people on Earth have moved up to an exclusive space station called Elysium, a place where disease has been completely eliminated (thanks to non-specific advancements in technology). Matt Damon’s character, an ex-con turned factory worker named Max, is trying to lead a normal life, but is struck by tragedy when an on-the-job accident leaves him with only five days to live. In order to live he needs to get to Elysium, and to do that he must return to the criminal world he was trying to escape.
As on-the-nose as the film’s central premise is, Blomkamp actually does a smart job finessing it into the story while also avoiding being preachy or overbearing (he’s partially aided by the fact that he can regularly distract the audience with awesome fight sequences and explosions).Two well-paced acts lead to a chaotic finale, where fight sequences and explosions cloud any explanation of Elysium's mechanics and security practices. It's the kind of messy logic that bugs you while walking back to the car — and not in a good way.
A well-written character lacking in typical hero tropes, Max is a strong character as brought to life by Damon, whose natural charisma shines through this hardened new look of tattoos and a shaved head. Blomkamp mixes in plenty of negative, selfish behavior for the character to keep him interesting, and Damon once again shows why he is one of the best lead actors we’ve got. It helps that he's surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, with actors like Wagner Moura, Diego Luna, and Alice Braga all putting in strong turns, but the movie’s real scene stealer is District 9 star Sharlto Copley.
Completely changing gears from the meek Wikus Van De Merwe in Blomkamp’s last film, Copley’s new character, Kruger, is a hardcore, evil son-of-a-bitch mercenary who is hired by the security team on Elysium to track down Max, and the South African star truly gives one hell of a performance. The only problem with this is that Copley manages to completely outshine every other villain in the story, particularly Jodie Foster’s Delacort, the Secretary of Security on Elysium and Kruger’s handler. While she does play a crucial part in the movie’s plot, the fact that she’s stuck up in space keeps her away from most of the action and undercuts her significance. The role is so minimized that the character ends up being more of a high-powered plot device.
Filming in Vancouver as a stand-in for Elysium and Mexico City as a stand in for future Los Angeles, Blomkamp creates two very disparate settings that are touched with amazing accents and details, part of the impressive sci-fi aesthetic we've come to expect from him. Much like he did with District 9, Blomkamp invents some awesome futuristic gadgets, from the exo-skeleton that Max is equipped with in order to complete his mission to the security discs that Kruger uses to hunt Max. All of it is backed by flawless CGI that never takes you out of the film.
It's easy and true to say that Elysium isn't as good as District 9, but it’s also slightly unfair and reductive. Blomkamp’s sophomore effort stands on its own and is a solid, well-made, original film that also has its fair share of problems. The writer/director remains one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch, and if he can keep producing at this level he will only elevate the science-fiction genre.