Release Date: 22nd August 2013
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner
Neil Blomkamp’s second full length feature sees him returning to the Sci-Fi genre with the same enthusiasm with which he approached the seminal District 9. In blockbuster seasons ruled by well-trodden franchises and superheroes, it’s a relief to see that Hollywood is putting some faith back in ideas again for the big Sci-Fi flick, and Elysium is ballsy too: attacking the rich and America’s attitude to immigration and healthcare, it’s a bit lefty for your usual summer popcorn actioner. It’s not afraid to appeal to a more mature audience either; with a 15 certificate the action feels much more visceral and exciting. A mature, political, epic Sci-Fi actioner? Thank God for Neill Blomkamp.
The year is 2154, and the Earth is over-populated and polluted, society’s richest having fled to the huge satellite colony known as Elysium. Back on Earth everyone is scraping to get by, living in vast broken cities and working physically demanding, dangerous jobs for low pay. One such worker is Max (Damon); an ex-con who’s looking to get back to a reasonably normal life. However once he gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at his dismal job, he’s told he only has 5 days to live. Grasping at what’s left of his dwindling life, he dedicates his last surviving days to finding a way to reach the ever-elusive Elysium to fulfil a life-long dream, and with the hopes of finding a cure to his sudden terminal illness.
It’s a fairly standard futuristic set up: in the grand tradition of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, we see the ordinary guy rebelling against an almost impenetrable dystopia, where governments are secondary to corporations and people are kept in line with the fear of brutal violence. Blomkamp certainly knows his Sci-Fi, and there are more than a number of nods to other sources; most palpably Paul Verhoeven with the terrifyingly polite but violent police robots, cartoonishly evil bad guys and thoroughly satirical, non-American agenda. It does feel like familiar territory for the most part, however seeing the state of some of the borderline offensive, braindead blockbusters that are churned out at a rate of knots from big studios, it’s very much a welcome to return to familiarity.
The action is definitely up to snuff too, with some genuinely thrilling action in which -finally- they aren’t afraid to shed a little blood. The CGI is impeccable and polished to within an inch of it’s life, but never threatens to be over-done, and some of the detail gone into the character model and landscape design shows just how much care was gone into the project. It genuinely looks gorgeous at times, too: moments including a slow motion shot of an exploding robot, or just seeing the Earth from space are both jaw-droppingly conceived. You’ve also got some compelling (if slightly silly) characters, including Jodie foster’s uber-bitch and Sharlto Copley’s absolutely terrifying covert agent; Matt Damon brings gravity to a role that could quite easily have been phoned in by somebody younger and less charismatic, and William Fichtner’s in it too, which requires no other explanation other than it’s William Fichtner and he’s a wee bit awesome.
Saying that, a lot of elements don’t quite gel: at times the political allegory feels a bit too simplistic and hackneyed, and tonally it’s a lot more jarring that District 9, which had a much clearer idea of the film it wanted to be. It certainly feels like it’s District 9‘s more wayward cousin: louder, brasher and no-where near as clever. However seeing Neil Blomkamp’s career blossom and the love he has for the genre, it reminds us how much Sci-Fi cinema is often tied up with ideas of America, and how having a foreign voice actually lends itself nicely to political satire and challenging the Hollywood equilibrium, as Verhoeven did in the 80s and 90s. It’s clear though that he’s part of the videogame generation: he’s never quite sure whether he wants to satirise, or just blow shit up. Both, to be honest, I’m quite happy with; if there was the same amount of care and attention gone into crafting your average blockbuster as there was here, then audiences would be a lot more sophisticated. Shame then that films like this are few and far between.