In 2009, director Neill Blomkamp made an indelible impression with District 9, a viciously exciting, darkly funny allegory about alien migration and human cruelty. Four years later, and Blomkamp’s back with an expanded budget and the same taste for razor-sharp satire with Elysium.
If you want an illustration of how good a filmmaker Neill Blomkamp is, look no further than its opening. Where most directors would spend about half an hour establishing their future world, Blomkamp manages it within two minutes and a handful of shots.
It’s the year 2154, and the gap between rich and poor has become a chasm: the richest few live in gilded luxury on an orbiting space station called Elysium – a mix between the rotating torus of 2001: A Space Odyssey and mansion-filled Beverly Hills – while the poor live in a huddle of favelas on Earth, where they’re guarded over by a brutally efficient android police force.
Like District 9, Elysium is a mix of social commentary and action. And in case you were worrying that an expanded budget and starrier cast may have blunted Blomkamp’s fearsome edge, fear not: Elysium is almost – but not quite – as blood-splattered and violent as District 9 was.
A pumped-up, shaven-headed Matt Damon stars as Max, a put-upon factory worker scratching out a miserable living among the debris of Los Angeles. Attempting to put his criminal past behind him, Max’s grim fortunes take a turn for the even worse when an industrial accident leaves him dangerously irradiated and with only a handful of days to live.
Knowing that the citizens of Elysium have access to medipod technology that could save his life, Max resolves to find a way up to the station. Turning to an old criminal friend, Spider (Elite Squad’s Wagner Moura) for help, Max’s body is augmented with an exoskeleton, which gives him the kind of strength approaching that of a police droid. But standing in the way of Max and Elysium are a range of obstacles, among them Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, with a somewhat strange cut-glass accent), who ensures that Elysium is kept migrant-free, and scariest of all, Sharlto Copley’s psychotic mercenary, Kruger.
From beginning to end – from those opening shots, which contrast the gleaming beauty of Elysium with the dirt of future LA, to the chaotic conclusion – Elysium looks absolutely stunning. We’ve already seen some visually rich sci-fi world-building this year in Oblivion, but Elysium is even more detailed and vast; if anything, it looks more expensive than its already high $120 million budget implies.
Everything, from the ungainly yet powerful police droids to the tattoos on the earthly characters’ bodies have been given the same level of attention; there’s always the impression of a much larger world lurking outside the frame. While preppy bureaucrats like William Fichtner’s Carlyle ride around in gorgeously-designed Bugatti spaceships, all clean lines and red velour interiors, Matt Damon and his criminal friends drive around in grotty old Nissans and wield AK-47s that have been altered so they can fire high-tech bullets. It’s a retro-fitted, make-do-and-mend future: a place where old laptops and vehicles have been patched up and maintained past their normal sell-by-date.
As in District 9, Blomkamp shows the same boyish fascination with elaborate explosive devices and heavy ordnance. There are exploding ninja stars, heat-seeking armour-piercing bullets, and all kinds of other violently powerful weapons which we’ll leave you to discover for yourselves. If anything, the deadliest weapon in Elysium is Kruger, Sharlto Copley’s bearded, ranting sociopath. A heartless killer who spends his days off cooking barbecues on his roof terrace, but then goes into battle mode at the click of Jodie Foster’s fingers, he’s one of the most memorable, formidable villains we’ve seen this year.
As in the recent home invasion thriller The Purge, we’re shown a future world where the rich have fled to their citadel and pulled the drawbridge up after them – only this time, the story’s told from the perspective of the paupers invading the castle and not the reverse. And just as Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall saw a greedy, cruel corporation hold the downtrodden population of Mars in check by controlling its supply of oxygen, so the wealthy of Elysium keep their medipod technology for themselves while the poor below suffer and die.
Essentially, Elysium is an expensive movie about immigration and the redistribution of wealth, which will probably have Fox News spluttering into its cornflakes. For a mainstream action film, this is pretty strong stuff, and Blomkamp’s shown an admirable amount of nerve in getting Elysium made at all – let alone at this budget level, and with so much violence in it.
Elysium is so beautifully packaged, it’s almost a shame that its story is sometimes linear and easy to predict. Unlike District 9, which introduced a morally bankrupt protagonist who’s dragged kicking and screaming towards redemption, Elysium is a more straightforward tale of heroes versus villains.
In the hands of a lesser director, it could have been a more forgettable film, so it’s to Blomkamp’s credit – and his actors, including Alice Braga as Matt Damon’s childhood friend – that Elysium managed to hold our attention from start to finish. The world building, pace and action are so effortlessly, breathtakingly staged, it simply sweeps along from one set-piece to the next.
Following the Oscar-nominated success of District 9 couldn’t have been easy, but Blomkamp’s managed it. Rather than temper his interests and filmmaking style to appease a cash-hungry studio, he’s bravely pressed ahead and made the film he wanted to make. And once again, the director’s strength behind the camera is matched by Sharlto Copley – pitched against Matt Damon’s necessarily benign, sarcastic everyman, he’s the film’s sick, beating heart.
Stunning to look at and often breathlessly exciting, Elysium is another marvellous genre film from Blomkamp. As long as he keeps making exciting, individual sci-fi films like this, we’ll keep going to the cinema to see them.
Elysium is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd August.
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