Director: Neill Blomkamp.
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, Williams Fichtner.
FOLLOWING up a stunning debut can be hard — from Orson Welles to The Stone Roses, from Richard “Donnie Darko” Kelly to The Strokes, this has been a problem for anyone who strikes artistic gold first time around.
Neill Blomkamp joined that double-edged club when he released District 9 in 2009. It was a refreshingly raw and intelligent sci-fi that discarded the bloated visuals of the Avatars and Star Wars, heralding a return to smaller scale storytelling that actually had something to say.
As is often the case with a second outing, Blomkamp has aimed higher and thought bigger with Elysium. Fortunately he maintains the intelligence and conscience that made his debut so enjoyable, while ramping up the action to a satisfying but not overblown level.
Set in 2154, the film presents a disturbing dystopian future, showing Earth as a dying and overcrowded planet left to the lower classes while the rich live aboard a paradisical space station called Elysium which orbits overhead.
Like all humans left behind, Max (Damon) dreams of living in Elysium, where sickness, crime and poverty have been eradicated.
His dream becomes more of a desperate need following a workplace accident which gives him just five days to live. A cure exists on Elysium, but to get there he will have to return to his criminal past to secure passage, which exposes him to a whole new range of dangers.
The film looks like the older, richer brother of District 9. Its gritty landscapes, dust-on-the-lens visuals and cleverly used CG effects are similar to Blomkamp’s first film but juxtaposed with the clinical bureaucracy and lush suburbia of life on the space station that hint at a much bigger budget.
Its central themes are nothing new - the haves-vs-have-nots concept has long gone hand-in-hand with sci-fi and in recent times has been wheeled out with varying success by In Time (good) and Upside Down (not-so-good). Elysium is better than both and digs a bit deeper into its class war amid some erratically edited fist fights, delving into explorations of health care, people smuggling, third-world working conditions and the devaluing of human life.
So, yes, there's a brain here amid the punch-ons, which are part-thrilling but part-annoying due to some strange shot choices and excessive editing. Blomkamp obviously relishes some of his key moments and overdoes the slo-mo a bit too, but at least when he's doing that you can see what's going on.
Damon is good as the very desperate Max, who is not the sharpest tool in the shed but endowed with guts and determination aplenty.
The show-stealer, however, is Copley as the psychopathic Kruger - time will tell, but this could be a sci-fi villain for the ages. Copley is menacing, disturbing and brings a physicality to the role which makes it look like the one-time Jason Bourne is really up against it every time they go head to head.
Having a memorable villain and a strong hero do give this a boost, driving the empathy and emotion of the film and elevating it when it starts to annoy.
Equally evil but less effective is Foster's heartless politician Delacourt, with the Oscar-winning not quite nailing her dark side, while Braga, Luna, Moura and Fichtner are solid in the side roles.
Blomkamp's script is sharp, setting up its future scenario succinctly. It does get overblown in places, particularly towards the end, but its grand strokes, occasional dumb lines and mis-firing action editing don't detract from the fact that this intelligent and enjoyable science fiction.
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