If there’s any film with a huge burden of being a director’s sophomore effort, it’s Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. Just how do you follow up a film as original, brilliant, and out-of-nowhere as District 9? While District 9 featured a well-mixed blend of sci-fi and political allegory, this time, Blomkamp is setting his sights almost a little too high by tackling current social issues —think the 99% — just to name one. Elysium isn’t quite the narrative triumph that District 9 was, but it still takes to the skies with jaw-dropping effects and a badass attitude.
In 2154, Earth’s population is disease-ridden and suffering from overpopulation. While the sick are burdened with pollution and overcrowding, the wealthiest hit the high road and get themselves to the titular utopian space station. There’s no sickness aboard Elysium thanks to medbays that can heal any known illness — from broken bones to cancer. Max (Matt Damon) is a legendary criminal on parole, trying to stay out of trouble, building defense robots for the company Armadyne, owned by John Carlyle (William Fichtner).
When Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work — and given five days to live — he runs to Spider (Wagner Moura) for help. Spider offers him a chance to get to Elysium if he can download a cerebral upload from Carlyle, which is part of a coup with Elysium’s Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to take down President Patel (Faran Tahir). The many subplots include Max being assisted by his friend Julio (Diego Luna), and Max running across his first love, Frey (Alice Braga), whom he met as a child in an orphanage and Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley), hot on Max’s tail, as a rogue defense agent taking orders from Delacourt.
Agendas run high among the characters in Elysium, and it’s basically every man (or woman) for themselves. Blomkamp keeps the agendas running full speed ahead and the film at first feels like a snowball gathering speed, until it turns into an avalanche of awesome. Only Max is given a real character arc, but even in District 9 there was only one main character — Copley’s Wikus — who just happened to be stuck in extreme circumstances. Copley’s Kruger character is put through his own personal hell here, no doubt having the time of his life getting to play the antagonist this time. He plays Kruger like a schoolyard buddy on steroids, and it’s hilarious.
The biggest accomplishment of Elysium is that it continues Blomkamp’s one-man band style. Oh sure, he may have some huge help from his visual effects team and his actors, but he’s now delivered two of the best sci-fi films back-to-back with only himself as writer/director. Just when we thought summer was over, Elysium kicks things back into high gear, and if you see it on any screen, make sure it’s IMAX. This is a film as big as you’re likely to see this year next to Pacific Rim or Oblivion. While I could go on and on about the film’s themes involving immigration, health care, and class — it’s no coincidence that almost all the inhabitants of Elysium are both white and rich — what really matters is if the film delivers on the wow factor. And boy does it ever.
Photos courtesy TriStar Pictures