District 9, screenwriter and director Neill Blomkamp had a Debut. Yes, a capital D. It was that good, a science fiction story that was smart and unique, visually interesting and unlike just about any other sci-fi flick out there. Blomkamp has been patient though picking his follow-up, finally directing his second feature film, 2013's Elysium.
It's 2154 and Earth as we know it is no more. Overpopulation has ravaged the planet, the rich and well-to-do creating an immense, luxurious space station named Elysium that floats around the planet, allowing them to steer clear of the unclean masses back on Earth. In the slums of Los Angeles, an ex-con, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), is making it day-to-day, working in a manufacturing factory on an assembly line for the Elysium-run Armadyne Corp. A work accident exposes him to deadly amounts of radiation, Max given just five days to live. Elysium has Med-Bays that can cure any disease, any ailment, but Max has no way of getting there. With his days quite literally numbered, Max takes a deal with a black market dealer to try and "steal" a rich man's financial information by actually hacking his brain. The chances of success are slim at best, but Max has no better alternative.
What I'm about to say I don't say as a complaint, just an observation. Is it just me or does it seem like wave after wave of dystopian science fiction films keep hitting theaters? From Oblivion to The Hunger Games movies, Total Recall to Looper and many more, we seem to be in the Age of Dystopia, well, in films at least. Even Blomkamp's previous film, District 9, was the definition of a dystopian film. Is it a bad thing? Can you have too much of a good thing? When handled correctly, I don't think it matters if a movie is, for the lack of a better word, "familiar." And don't be confused, Elysium is familiar but almost always in a good way. It's somewhat predictable almost from the get-go and if you've read anything from 1984 to Fahrenheit 451, you have an idea of where it's going. There are haves and have-nots, the haves doing their damnedest to make sure it stays that way. If that ain't a good jumping off point, I don't know what is.
In the same way Blomkamp's 'District' was unique, so is 'Elysium.' Again writing the screenplay and directing, Blomkamp does what the best science fiction films do. He creates a world that is original, unsettling, realistic and quite a window into our society in the present. It works because it is rather easy to see our 2014 Earth becoming the 2154 Earth of Elysium. Overpopulation is a very real threat so it's easy to see developing this way. The overpopulated masses left behind live in expansive slums, Los Angeles turning into slums as far as the eye can see, not unlike the slums in Rio de Janiero. They work for minimal wages, kept under the oppressive thumb of the government and corporations of Elysium. That power seems to be waning though, something the Defense Secretary, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is aware of and trying to combat. From the technology to the transportation, the unidentifiable accents that the people of Elysium have developed, it's Blomkamp developing a world, all those little touches combining to make it unsettling and dramatic and realistic, maybe most importantly, a frightening world.
For this all to work though, we need some sort of human component, and that comes from Damon's Max, a doomed anti-hero if there ever was. His background is hinted at, addressed some in fuzzy-edged flashbacks (Maxwell Perry Cotton playing Young Max), an orphan who turned to stealing cars (maybe more) and ended up in jail. Now, he's trying to go clean when his life is shortened with the work accident. Criminal past aside, Damon's Max is sympathetic. With nothing to lose, nothing that can happen to him is actually that threatening. Still, he desperately wants to live, and that's why he takes a ridiculously suicidal mission from black market dealer and smuggler, Spider (Wagner Moura). We're rooting for Max from the word 'go,' and we want him to make it. The radiation exposure has severely weakened him, forcing Spider to outfit him with a weaponized/armored exo-skeleton. That Blomkamp, he seems to have a fascination with engineered/mutated anti-heroes. Damon hits all the right notes as Max, sympathetic, intense and driven like nothing else to survive.
Beyond Damon though, Blomkamp chose not to use much in terms of recognizable star power. The biggest name is Jodie Foster as Delacourt, the icy, greedy and high-reaching Defense Secretary. She's fed up with limitations placed on her shoulders, especially by the peacefully idealistic President of Elysium (Faran Tahir), even though results are demanded above all else. Blomkamp favorite and District 9 star Sharlto Copley plays Kruger, a black ops agent who does all the dirty work for Delacourt. I like Copley (really liked him in 'District'), but there are times he gets to ham it up too much, too many one-liners. Still, he's a terrifying villain, a possible unhinged and very capable agent. Alice Braga plays Frey, a childhood friend/crush of Max's, now a single mom with a daughter (Emma Tremblay) dying from leukemia, William Fichtner plays an Armadyne C.E.O. and a target of Max's, and Diego Luna plays Julio, Max's close friend trying to help his wounded friend in need.
Where Blomkamp has made a name for himself and can hopefully help him have long-term success is his storytelling ability. His sci-fi stories are smart, no doubt about it. But just like District 9, he blends in that well-written, message-oriented story with some great, heart-pumping and visceral action story. He still relies too much on the ultra-hyper, shaky cam techniques, but the action isn't as indecipherable as some movies. This action is fast, bloody and gets the blood pumping. The finale really packs a punch in the action department, Max loose in Elysium with Kruger and his two enforcers (Brandon Auret and Josh Blacker) hot on his trail. My favorite though was near the midpoint of the movie, Max trying to pull off Spider's crazy plan, robbing the memory of Fichtner's brains, not realizing he's stumbled into something far bigger than he thought. It's a big, loud action scene, full of slow-motion and hyper editing that works together, composer Ryan Amon's score adding to that pulse-pounding shootout.
Filmed on the outskirts of the slums in an isolated, sandy flatland, it's a great action sequence. That's what I like most about Blomkamp's movies. They're a good mix of the smart, intelligent and thoughtful with equal parts action, exciting throughout, and some pretty cool characters. It isn't a classic sci-fi, but it's still very good. Easily recommended.
Elysium (2013): ***/****