Whether a big political statement was his intention or not, Neill Blomkamp made an impact with 2009’s message-heavy District 9. And though Elysium is by no means set in the same world, it has a similar feel about it. From the dusty colour palate to the shaky camerawork and overt social commentary, this is familiar territory.
This time, Blomkamp focuses on immigration and class divide. Matt Damon is Max De Costa, a kid from the slums who’s trying to escape his petty criminal past. But disaster strikes when an accident leaves him dying and desperate. With his life hanging in the balance, he must find a way to get to utopian space station Elysium – by any means necessary.
What follows is essentially a caper, as Max agrees to do one last job for underworld lord Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for a scary-ass exoskeleton that is brutally bound to his spine and acts as a golden ticket to the world of the wealthy.
Of course, it isn’t going to be that easy. The despicable Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster) will go to any lengths to keep the riffr-aff off her perfectly manicured lawn, and her political machinations and psychopathic henchman Kruger (Sharlto Copley) mean nothing good for Max’s mission.
It’s not long before everything goes wrong and we see the darkest side of humanity. Blomkamp goes for the jugular both emotionally and physically as kids die, women are abused, the poor are neglected and the rich turn a blind eye. And while this is very definitely science fiction, it’s also very real.
There’s plenty of CGI, but Blomkamp beautifully blends it into the world he creates – whether it’s the dirty, dusty Earth or the luscious green environs of Elysium.
But it’s not just the direction that’s a success; Elysium is a perfect vehicle for a bulked-up Damon’s return to action herodom. That he can carry a film is no surprise, but there’s something enjoyably nostalgic about seeing him return to the role of a down-and-out. Max is by no means a genius, but he’s a wise-cracking kid from the wrong side of the tracks with a smart mouth, a short temper and a good heart, and Damon plays it beautifully.
But while Damon is unequivocally the star of this movie, it’s Copley’s performance that has the most impact, leaving us unsettled and uncomfortable. His villain is violent, unhinged and entirely amoral. From threatening rape to menacing a child and killing blithely, this is a man who lives for destruction – a cold-blooded killer without regret or remorse. It’s a wonderful performance from an actor who consistently proves himself versatile and compelling.
As for the supporting cast, Moura, Alice Braga, William Fichtner and Diego Luna all turn in satisfactory performances, but the surprise letdown comes in the form of Foster. In attempting to portray a callous, cold-hearted bitch, the actress instead affects a robot with an indeterminable accent and no redeeming qualities. There’s no real character in Rhodes, instead we have an out-of-the-box villain completely unworthy of an actress of her calibre. She does, however, speak beautiful French. So there’s that.
In blending cinéma vérité inspiration with tried-and-tested sci-fi tropes and all-out action, Blomkamp carves out a distinctive niche for himself. In this case, more of the same isn’t a bad thing. A bigger studio budget has taken nothing away from the film’s heart or its message, simply enhancing the director’s already distinctive signature style. And because that message is never pious, preachy or shoved down our throats, ultimately what we get is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.