I fell in love with Neill Blomkamp’s first film “District 9”; the South African filmmaker’s take on a sci-fi film was really brilliant and shows how a filmmaker with a unique storytelling voice can create something new and exciting. It was an eye-opening experience and even more remarkable because it was the filmmaker’s first full-length feature.
His second film “Elysium” is not quite as ground-breaking or original, but it does add a unique voice, making it a more interesting sci-fi film. In a less talented director’s hands, “Elysium” would be a routine sci-fi programmer, the type of film quickly forgotten and relegated to endless cable runs. But Blomkamp’s vision and style help ensure that “Elysium” will be remembered as a highlight of the summer.
Los Angeles in 2154 is an overpopulated, toxicly polluted, dry and brown landscape in which people toil at meaningless jobs and struggle to survive. Yes, I said 2154 and not 2013. The working class is essentially stuck on Earth in what is a police state. The rich and wealthy live on a space station that looks like Beverly Hills and comes complete with machines able to heal any sickness or ailment. The people on Earth make attempts to board Elysium, to take advantage of the healing machines, but Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the head of Defense, quickly orders these errant spaceships shot down. Back on Earth, Max (Matt Damon) gets involved in an accident at work and becomes irradiated. He soon learns he has five days to live. Struggling to figure out how to survive, he meets mercenaries who offer to help him; they will strap a metal framework to his body and use intelligence stolen from Carlyle (William Fichtner) to get past Elysium’s security network. As Max struggles with these preparations (the framework is physically attached to his body), he reconnects with Frey (Alice Braga), a girl he grew up with in an orphanage. She now has a daughter who is sick and about to die, giving Max even more reason to get to Elysium. But Delacourt also has a rogue warrior, Kruger (Sharlito Copley), in her pocket and enlists him to stop Max and help her restore order.
Written and directed by Blomkamp, the narrative of “Elysium” is presented in an economical way, which keeps the story moving and holds your interest. There is a very brief intro before we watch an unauthorized shuttle approach the space station. We watch Delacourt go into action and then focus on Max back on Earth. Max labors through every day, much like the other people living in Los Angeles, but he does what he has to do and tries to remain positive about everything. We quickly learn about his living situation, his job, what life is like in this Los Angeles. It isn't great. A lot of sci-fi films run over two hours and this is usually attributed to the set-up and backstory necessary to get us involved in the story. Blomkamp doesn't stop the narrative to give us details, he gives us the details as part of the narrative. It is so much more engaging to learn these things as the story unfolds – because so much is happening, we pay closer attention and enjoy the finer points of this filmmaker's work.
Max lives in a little shack in the middle of an even more run-down part of town. This is the part of town run by Spider (Wagner Moura), the man behind constant attempts to get sick people up to Elysium for treatment. He finally comes up with a plan and Max is the key. But Max is a reluctant hero and takes some convincing. When he decides to help Spider out, the process proves to be painful, continuously forcing Max to prove his determination to help. Watching Max's journey also propels us further into his universe and life.
There are a lot of things going on in “Elysium”. Spider wants to get sick people to the space station, to receive treatment. This is a driving force in his life. But he also wants to get people up there – any people – to help break the exclusivity of this place, to smash the class barrier. He uses one obsession as a mask for another.
Matt Damon's Max is an interesting reluctant hero. Max seems happy to be just surviving. In fact, after he has an accident and work and receives a dire prognosis, his desire to continue living drives him to take the next steps to help Spider and become part of his team. Throughout the journey we share with Max, we learn about him and his view of life, we see a few moments he shared with Frey when they were kids, moments that foreshadow who they will both become. It is a surprisingly complex character and Damon brings a lot to the role.
Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the head of security for Elysium. She is a steely woman who doesn't seem to think twice about ordering a shuttle of Earth refugees shot down before it reaches Elysium. Her focus is to keep the people of Elysium safe and her focus never wavers. Even when the President questions her and threatens to reprimand her, she seems to consider these to be minor inconveniences and continues forward with her duties, never missing a step. In fact, the threat of a reprimand only serves to make her take the next step in her plan.
Sharlito Copley plays Kruger, a mercenary under the thumb of Delacourt, willing and able to do whatever it takes to fulfill his responsibilities. Copley, the star of “District 9”, adds a unique character to the film. As soon as Kruger sees the power shifting, he takes advantage of the situation to the best of his ability. And this allows Copley to really allow Kruger to become larger than life. He is almost a human version of the Terminator, pursuing his goals with an unhuman tenacity.
The fact that the name of the space station Elysium - where all of the rich and privileged live, and where they have no worries, no sickness - is borrowed from Greek mythology adds another level of interest to the film and shows the creativity of Blomkamp. It goes back to that 'unique storyteller' thing I was talking about earlier. Let's face it, many won't get the reference - many writers and directors probably wouldn't - so when a filmmaker does, you sit up and take notice. Everyone wanted to go to the Elysium Fields, paradise, like heaven, to be with family and friends, to never get sick again. The Elysium in this film is remarkably similar to Beverly Hills - large estates, predominately white marble, lots of green spaces. The only difference is the slight curve to the landscape to reflect the curve in the space station.
Once Max and Kruger arrive at Elysium, the film falters a bit and becomes more conventional. They battle each other, fighting to the death. It is a well-orchestrated fight, but it doesn't offer a lot of new visual material for us to savor, material that Blomkamp has already earned a reputation for.
The entire final act falters slightly, veering very close to a routine sci-fi conclusion. This is disappointing because everything up to that point is really good, memorable and interesting.
Blomkamp is a skilled craftsman, capable of creating a unique moviegoing experience. I hope he continues to use his skill, his voice, to create many, many more films to come.