Elysium, the second movie from writer-director Neill Blomkamp, isn’t quite as inventive or fresh as his knockout debut, 2009’s District 9. But the new picture is cut from the same cloth — furiously exciting sci-fi, carefully considered and loaded with allegories and social commentary. In his first foray into Hollywood studio filmmaking, Blomkamp has stayed true to his artistic instincts while delivering all the flash and pow required by a $100 million budget. This is a mean and dirty little B-movie, made with the gloss and scope of a grade-A blockbuster.
Like District 9, the central premise is storybook-simple: In the year 2154, Earth’s wealthiest elite have migrated to the eponymous space station, a luxurious and pristine utopia, leaving the rest of mankind behind on a ruined, crime-ridden planet policed by robots where forced labor and slave wages are the norm. One of those factory workers, the ex-convict Max (Matt Damon), grew up looking up at Elysium floating in the sky and dreamed of going there someday. But after he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation on the job and is given five days to live, that dream becomes a life-or-death mission: The medical pods that can cure him exist only in Elysium.
Blomkamp isn’t interested in the one percentile that literally floats above the lower class. With the exception of Elysium’s power-hungry secretary of defense (Jodie Foster), who ruthlessly shoots down shuttles carrying illegal immigrants trying to flee Earth, the rest of the space station’s inhabitants are faceless extras lurking in the background. The supposedly idyllic paradise, too, is rendered as an opulent playground of extravagant wealth, elegance and terminal boredom, a never-ending series of dull cocktail and dinner parties hosted by bland, impeccably mannered billionaires. If this is the good life, I’d take my chances on Earth any day. At least things are exciting there.
Elysium would have been a better, more complex film if Blomkamp hadn’t used such broad strokes in his depiction of the upper class (even Foster can’t do much but glare and give off villainous vibes). But there isn’t much time in this lean, fast-paced picture to focus on anything outside of Max’s desperate quest, which is made more difficult by an unhinged government agent (District 9’s Sharlto Copley) in relentless pursuit. The plot of Elysium becomes tangled, but it’s never confusing, allowing Blomkamp to stage one suspenseful cliffhanger after another. There are some effective twists, too, including a tremendously staged setpiece involving a live grenade that takes you by surprise. Arriving at the tail end of a mostly disappointing summer movie season, this is popcorn entertainment of the highest order.
Damon is so likable and charismatic as Max that you always root for the character, even when he makes morally questionable decisions. The visuals and effects in Elysium are state-of-the-art — the movie looks fantastic — and although Blomkamp isn’t subtle with his subtexts of class differences, racism and the importance of universal health care, he does leave them open to interpretation. Elysium could be read as either pro or con on opening borders for immigrants: “Look at the good that comes when you help the downtrodden!” or “Well, there goes the neighborhood!”
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner.
Writer-director: Neill Blomkamp.
Producers: Bill Block, Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg.
A TriStar Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, strong violence, gore. Opens Friday Aug. 9 at area theaters.