At first glance, the plot of Neill Blomkamp’s second film, Elysium, looks a lot like that of his first, 2009’s well-received District 9. In both films, a disenfranchised, cordoned-off population struggles to survive—monitored and occasionally abused by a distrustful, prosperous elite—until a lone individual upsets the status quo. Of course, in Blomkamp’s first film, the ghettoized group are actual aliens living in a small refugee camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg. In his newest, the ghetto is Earth and its inhabitants the ruined planet’s entire resident population (with the prosperous elite living far above in a revolving space wheel of pool parties and all-curing health beds).
In place of District 9’s Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat who discovers his empathy and humanity even as he transforms into something most would deem monstrous, Elysium has Max (action A-lister Matt Damon), an ex-con who can’t catch a break (though he is pretty good at getting beaten, irradiated and mutilated). In both films, events spiral out of the protagonist’s control, leading to desperate decisions in an effort to survive.
But whereas District 9 was in many ways an intimate, sci-fi-coated tale of personal transformation (with action sequences), Elysium is more reupholstered fable. Max’s journey of literal transformation (and attempted transportation) plays out as more Jason Bourne or James Bond than Ellen Ripley or Rick Deckard. (Granted, in general, sci-fi films aren’t really expected to provide thought-provoking character arcs.)
In part, the difference can be explained by the bet Sony Pictures is making on Blomkamp’s sophomore effort. With a budget more than three times that of the $30 million District 9, Elysium probably needed to play bigger and less subtly than its predecessor. (Thoughtful, lo-fi sci-fi is not the stuff $300 million-grossing summer blockbusters are made of—at least not until someone makes one that does, he says, wistfully.)
Blomkamp has shifted the tone and content of his film, accordingly. Despite obvious and ample sociopolitical overtones, Elysium is not really meant to serve as potent, instructional allegory. Instead, the parallels are simply convenient shorthand for explaining the action sequences as they unfold (and to place the heroes and villains firmly on their respective sides).
Once Max suffers the most anticipatable workplace accident ever, his efforts to reach Elysium are opposed by not one but two potent foes: hamster wheel border czar Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her feral, human-ish earthside agent, Kruger (Copley, playing a monster from the start in this film). Copley chews through the scenery every moment he’s onscreen, while the poised and perfectly coiffed Foster seems intent on melting hers with ruthless, cold disdain. As villainous duos go, it’s a great one-two punch.
The action sequences themselves are packed with ways to die horribly (“Thanks, science!”) that are all too conceivable. Blomkamp knows how to blow apart a body. Thankfully, he also knows how to engage in compelling speculative-world-building. Blomkamp’s signature visual style—a vibrant, near seamless juxtaposition of CGI and gritty realism—does as much as anything else to distinguish Elysium from the yearly crop of dystopias. (The design and execution of the Armadyne robots deserves special praise.)
All things considered, it’s unlikely fans of District 9 will be completely satisfied with Elysium. But then again, those put off by some of the weaknesses of Blomkamp’s first film—the jarring third act perspective shift comes to mind—may find his latest, bolstered as it is by budget and big names, an enjoyable bit of summer sci-fi.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2013