22 August 2013


To some, Elysium has proved to be a bit of a disappointment. Personally, I think it's churlish to complain that Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9 is another crazy, smart, original sci-fi actioner, which takes place in a believable and lived-in environment, with interesting characters, superb special effects and considerable political resonance. Damn you, Blomkamp- couldn't you have shown more range, by making a franchise movie or something?

While District 9 was a spin on Apartheid in South Africa, Elysium is borne out of more current concerns about the haves and the have-nots, and debates about universal healthcare. Around 150 years into the future, the one-percenters of this world have fled the Earth to maintain their lifestyles, living on a luxurious space-station called Elysium. The poor remain on Earth, stewing in poverty and illness, despite advances in medicine that have all but cured death.

Max de Costa is a ex-con factory worker who has always dreamed of going to Elysium. When he gets himself into an industrial accident, dosed with a devastatingly lethal amount of radiation, his unfeeling robot doctor gives him just five days to live. In his desperation to get up there and be cured, Max is drilled into a performance-boosting mech-suit and given a brain implant containing vital data about the future of mankind, becoming involved in a mission that is much greater than himself.

Maybe it's a stretch to say that Blomkamp makes original films, because pedantry abounds when you say anything is original these days. It's more fitting to say that there's an originality in his perspective and execution- both of his films look like exactly the film he wanted to make, never compromised by studio notes or box office projections. Elysium cost over four times as much as District 9's modest $30 million budget, but then it also has bigger stars.

Following original sci-fi properties starring Tom Cruise and Will Smith earlier in the year, Matt Damon lands the best role of the bunch, and it's a role that allows him to push himself more too. With his shaved head and sarcastic demeanour, his Max is an enjoyable, sympathetic anti-hero. With his mantra of "I'm not going to fucking die", you easily find yourself rooting for him to be right. He takes a hell of a lot of punishment in the film- in between brawls with robot grunts and psychopathic mercenaries, the radiation is taking its toll. Like John McClane, (in the good old days, anyway) he's one of those reluctant heroes who becomes more likeable as he takes that punishment on the chin.

While similarities to District 9 are manifold, you're especially reminded of how Sharlto Copley's Wikus van der Merwe was an underdog as well. It makes his skin-crawling turn as Kruger, one of the aforementioned psychopathic mercenaries, all the more impressive. Allowed free rein with his South African twang, he works even better as a scene-stealer than he does as a leading man. Less effective is Jodie Foster as the ruthless military leader who plans a coup on Elysium- her character lacks any real breadth, and everyone's watching Copley as the far more interesting antagonist.

And of course, the world feels lived in. You'll find no cartoonish special effects here, with WETA Workshop providing the practical stuff and a number of effects houses providing the most photo-real CGI since... well, District 9. On the dystopian Earth, professions that require empathy or compassion, like police officers, doctors or parole officers, are now given over to robot labour, and these characters are integrated perfectly. The film looks stunning as a result, only marginally less impressive for costing more than Blomkamp's last film- we've seen even more expensive films look a hell of a lot cheaper.

Elysium may derive tropes from a number of different sources, including District 9, but it's sci-fi that is reminiscent of pressing issues in our own world, as opposed to being reminiscent of every other sci-fi movie touchstone. Blomkamp has certain character types that he likes to portray, but he uses them as no other major filmmaker does, and it's particularly enjoyable to see Sharlto Copley switch sides and be just as charismatic. In short, this is comfortably one of the better action movies of the summer.

Elysium is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Elysium, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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