Four years after the release of the stellar District 9, writer/director Neill Blomkamp brings us Elysium, a well-intentioned (albeit clunky) scifi actioner in the same vein. Blomkamp offers up visual spectacle, violent action, and social commentary in roughly equal measure. Elysium, however, lacks the punch of the director’s previous entry.
If District 9 was a commentary on South Africa’s apartheid government, Elysium is an allegory on relations between the United States and Latin America. Unfortunately, Blomkamp’s message here lacks subtlety or nuance. Eventually the film’s message becomes a distraction. Matt Damon stars as Max, a fiercely independent ex-con, who after suffering a lethal dose of radiation, desperately attempts to book passage to an orbiting space platform that houses the world’s wealthy and elite; on Elysium, he can get the medical attention he needs. Without anything more, a reasonably intelligent viewer could draw parallels between U.S.-Mexico relations.
However, Blomkamp decides to keep hammering the similarities in. The Earth of this movie is a polluted, overpopulated wasteland inhabited by brown-skinned people who speak a mixture of English and Spanish; on Elysium, the inhabitants are predominantly white or Asian and speak a mixture of English and French. Okay. We never actually see anyone performing physical labor on Elysium, because all blue-collar labor is performed by non-unionized factory workers on Earth. Sure. People attempting to cross over into Elysium for medical attention are referred to as “illegals” and are promptly deported back to Earth without receiving care. That’s a bit ham-fisted, but fine. By the time an Earth-based ship crashes onto Elysium in the film’s final act, prompting a villainous Jodie Foster to bellow for Homeland Security, my eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets.
Now, there’s nothing objectionable about Blomkamp’s viewpoint. It’s that he spends so much time engaging in world-building. Elysium contains many moving parts. There’s Damon cutting a deal with a shadowy crime lord to obtain passage to Elysium in exchange for the information contained within the brain corporate executive; there’s the woman he loves (Alice Braga) attempting to secure safe passage to Elysium for her dying daughter; a vicious sleeper agent (an unrecognizable Sharlto Copley) stalks after Damon along with his merry band of psychopaths; Meanwhile, Jodie Foster’s fascist Secretary of Defense attempts to stage a coup on the orbiting paradise because she perceives her brown-skinned superior to be too lenient in dealing with the waves of invading immigrants. It takes Blomkamp a lot of time to develop these plot strands and get to the action, and I can’t shake the feeling that a finer, leaner pictures exists within all this narrative fat.
When Elysium eventually kicks into high gear, it’s a blast to watch. I don’t know that anyone is better than Neill Blomkamp at creating futuristic science fiction worlds that feel inhabited and dingy. The look of Elysium is at odds with the sleek, polished look of Oblivion or Cloud Atlas. Earth looks like a giant slum, with ramshackle shelters built upon ramshackle shelters rising out of the dirt and grime. The powerful exoskeleton that gives Damon the ability to fist fight androids and upload computer data directly to his brain looks rusty and damaged—as if the machine had been pulled from the corpse of another and drilled directly into the base of our hero’s skull with little more than household power tools. Cars, ships, and androids all look eroded. Meanwhile, Elysium itself is clean, immaculate and traditionally futuristic. The film’s visuals are so detailed and lovingly crafted that much isn’t needed in the way of narrative.
After Damon’s anti-hero forcibly extracts vital information from the brain of a nasty industrialist, the movie’s action begins in earnest. Our hero battles androids and hitmen in equal measure using everything at his disposal from futuristic machine guns to pistols to knives to his own fists. The film’s action sequences are kinetic and visceral. Like District 9 before it, Elysium delivers gruesome thrills reminiscent of the great action movies of the ‘80s.
All in all, Elysium is a worthwhile film. It’s well-crafted, well-intentioned, and original. Blomkamp may be guilty of ramming his sociopolitical viewpoint down the audience’s throat, but at least he has a message to offer. While not a masterpiece, Elysium proves that Neill Blomkamp is more than a one-trick pony, and I eagerly await his next film.