Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 debut District 9 is a true original within the Sci-Fi genre. Laced with politically allegory and a fresh concept to boot, District 9 proved to be one of the best films of the year; it impressed both audiences and critics and marked Blomkamp as a talent to watch. Out of the ashes of his failed Halo project, Blomkamp still managed to prove himself with a project that was much more personal, organic, and worthy of expressing his talents. Whatever the follow up would be (at one point it looked to be a District 9 prequel) it was certainly going to be a point of interest to many cinema-goers. And that follow up is Elysium; once again politically driven (immigration and class struggles coming under scrutiny here), and while it is a film that offers much in the way of its own visceral thrills, you are left wanting for the satisfying taste of some Prawns.
Set in 2154, the world has been ravaged by pollution and social unrest, leading to the wealthiest inhabitants of the Earth deserting and moving to a giant space station orbiting the planet, known as Elysium. The space station has the capabilities to cure any disease and keep its inhabitants living a life of over-abundance and luxury. Down on Earth, the lower classes are left in squalor and ruin, dealing with limited resources, illness, and rather limited career opportunities. One of these working class inhabitants is Max (Matt Damon), a Robotics Factory worker, who has dreamt of traveling to Elysium since he was a child. After a fatal accident at work, Max is given only five days to live, which inspires him to make a break for Elysium by any means he can. Armed with a mechanized body suit to increase his waning strength, Max takes the fight to Elysium, as he soon finds himself in possession of incredibly potent information that could change the very fabric of society, both on Earth and on Elysium.
My plot description somewhat tones down a lot of the plot mechanics that are at work in the film; there is much going on within the system as it were. Politics come into play, characters are not to be trusted, and Jodie Foster attempts some kind of accent. Oh, and Sharlto Copley (star of District 9) tears through as a psychotic bounty hunter. Trust me, there is rather a lot going on for a film that should be pared down somewhat. The concept drives the film at its core, while the rest of the construction around it builds too many layers than we need, leading to moments of distracting exposition and cliched characterization. However, that is not to say that Elysium does not amount to a decent cinema-going experience. I thoroughly enjoyed Elysium, but now as I come to write my review, I feel a lack of passion towards it.
There is much to like about Blomkamp’s sophomore effort; the concept is to die for, and the design of the world is spectacular. Continuing his grungy organic feeling on Earth established in District 9, the future landscape is worryingly authentic and gritty; a fine balance between sophisticated CGI and props establishes a believable environment. Elysium itself is sleek, clean and polished, looking like most lifeless sci-fi movies of today. With Earth representing the sci-fi grunge of old and Elysium being painted as the sleeker modern-age of sci-fi, Blomkamp addresses not only political issues but also concerns within the filmic world, namely the sci-fi genre; that of it losing its edge and becoming white washed by having a sci-fi grunge world rebel and strike the serene sterile environment of Elysium. There is no faulting the design and the details of Blomkamp’s world and the technology throughout is cleverly employed.
Elysium‘s problems lie in its many sub-plots and bizarre performances. The action is stunning, with a great number of memorable images and action set-pieces, but they are in-between moments of disjointed plot exposition and cliched characters (namely Damon’s relation ship with Alice Braga’s character). Copley has a great deal of fun as the psychotic Kruger, but he feels out of place in the world, Damon is ever dependable and physically impressive, whereas Foster is an embarrassment, turning in a distracting performance that is often cringe-inducing. Where the film seems to be developing into a more sophisticated affair, it turns suddenly back into a bombastic sci-fi actioner in its final third, becoming very much a run-of-the-mill Hollywood sci-fi picture. There is the sense that Blomkamp came under more significant studio pressure, his creativity feeling somewhat stifled at certain turns.
Despite this sense of disjointedness, Elysium still proved to be (for me at least) a great messy bit of sci-fi balls to the wall action fare. I found it reminiscent of the work of Paul Verhoven in the 1980’s, standing with the likes of Robo-Cop and Total Recall, as that does seem to be the mantel and type of work that Blomkamp is aiming to emulate. The violence is both tongue-in-cheek and blistering and particularly evokes Verhoven; a gritty sci-fi dystopian world with a cynical view of the society we live in today. Blomkamp’s next movie, a sci-fi comedy by the name of Chappie, should further cement him as the Verhoven of our generation.
The visceral ferocity of Elysium proves that Blomkamp is by no means a one-trick pony, there is simply too much skill on display within the action sequences; the dissembling of a robot by an explosive charge, a facial reconstruction, and an extremely intense final showdown more then demonstrate this. But nothing particularly resonates. The ending does not have as much of a emotional punch as you feel Blomkamp would like it to have, due to the cluttered plot not giving enough time to the characters whom he wants us to pay attention to. The cynical outlook that the film represents seems at contention with the Hollywood sensibilities that the studio would have wanted to adhere to. It is a shame that such a strong vision seems to be somewhat stifled leading to a great deal of details feeling half-baked. Yet, Elysium provides the thrills and stimulates the mind just enough to provide a piece of Hollywood sci-fi that is a darn sight fresher than what we are usually delivered.