Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
What made District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut, so memorable was the way it flawlessly balanced the action & excitement of a sci-fi thriller with an effective social/political message that never felt overbearing or forced. The theme of said message was immigration, told through the invasion of an alien race in the over-populated city of Johannesburg; it was originally presented, effectually involving and relevant for the time. Elysium’s political issue is equally as relevant; the idea of wealth and the segregation of class is a particularly affecting topic given the current financial climate. Elysium’s problem is it’s inability to balance the exploration of this issue with an overly busy plot that constantly calls for action… lots & lots of action.
Blomkamp opens strong with wide shots of Los Angeles a century from now; it’s an overcrowded police state made up of endless shantytowns. Here lives Max, a petty criminal brought up by nuns and who dreams of a better life. This better life can be found on Elysium, a gargantuan spaceship docked just above earth that is inhabited by the Earth’s wealthiest. After an overexposure to radiation gives Max 5 days to live, he becomes determined to travel from Earth to Elysium for lifesaving treatment. Determined to stop Max is Delacourt, Elysium’s hardnosed head of security.
It’s a substantial narrative in itself, so when Blomkamp reveals a McGuffin midway through the second act that makes Max determined to both save his own life & bring equality to Earth’s inhabitants, the narrative becomes as overcrowded as the dystopian setting. Blomkamp’s slow opening doesn’t help him as the story progresses but is unquestionably the best part of the film. His visuals are mind-blowing & watching a quietly compelling Matt Damon go to work, visit his parole officer and attempt to reconnect with a childhood sweetheart is an absorbing foundation that successfully highlights the isolation of the poor by juxtaposing Max’s life with that of Delacourt’s on Elysium.
It’s once Max has been exposed and the film becomes a rush to save his life that Blomkamp looses his way. Social comment is persistently forgotten about as Delacourt catches wind of the McGuffin wired in to Max’s brain, sending a sleeper agent to capture Max and thus help her gain full control of Elysium. The extended action pieces that follow are never as involving as they should be. Unlike District 9, Blomkamp goes for a shaky hand-held approach, mixing it with fast cuts that make the sequences both dizzying and confusing.
As Delacourt, Jodie Foster is amiable but her character is 2 dimensional and never engrossing enough to be an investable antagonist. Much more successful is Sharlto Copley, who while equally as unexplored narratively is unrelentingly terrifying. A lack of a central villain, which further busies the story, weakens the film more though.
Elysium’s opening 20 minutes promises so much that you can’t help but feel a little disappointed come the end credits. Whereas District 9 maintained a solid balance between sci-fi action and social observation, Elysium forgets any political comments in favor of head spinning fight sequences & big explosions. There’s no escaping just how eye opening the visuals are though or any doubting Copley’s incredible talent. However, Blomkamp must do better to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder.