It’s hard to believe that Neill Blomkamp’s new sci-fi epic with a social message, Elysium, is only his second major outing on the big screen. The South African born director’s debut District 9 (2009) paved the way for this year’s release. While District 9’s story focused on a sci-fi take on South Africa’s difficult history of apartheid, Elysium deals with social injustice of a different kind.
Elysium sees “The 99%” left on the giant slum that is planet Earth, while the rich and beautiful play on the haunting, circular space station Elysium. Elysium is a tranquil paradise populated by people who all seem to have live-in hairstylists, live in Hamptons-style ‘suburbs’ and thanks to Nano-technology, can be cured of anything. Meanwhile Earth is a giant slum, where people are policed by robots and struggle through life.
Matt Damon is Max, inhabitant of Earth who dreams of Elysium. A radioactive accident leaves Max with no choice but to fight for a ticket to Elysium where his condition can be quickly cured. Black market shuttles to Elysium rarely arrive, but Max is willing to try anything for his chance to be cured; taking on dangerous tasks for criminal with a conscience Spider (Wanger Moura).
His childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) is soon drawn into the mix, and while he struggles to save her and her sick child (Emma Tremblay) there is a refreshing lack of sexual tension or even chemistry between them. This noble desire to save his friend allows the plot to progress without becoming stuck in the quagmire that can be hastily written romances in an action film.
Despite Damon’s A-list status, Sharlto Copley steals the show as sleeper agent Kruger who is called in to track down Max. His South African accent coupled with his unfailing sense of comic timing just hits the nail on the head, creating a menacing yet oddly likeable villain.
Blomkamp’s not one to shy away from the weight social issues of the day, but to him the sci-fi always comes first. Every car, weapon and robot has the Blomkamp stamp on it somewhere, with a background in CGI he is heavily involved in the minutiae of the film and that makes all the difference. Elysium does not take place in some half-baked version of the future, there is a whole world surrounding the central plot – a world we only see snippets of, but one that is surely fully formed on a drawing board somewhere. This depth of creativity radiates through the film, the plot is simplistic but in that simplicity lays its genius.
At 1 hour 40, Elysium is perfectly balanced; taking enough time to form relationships with the characters without dragging out the unnecessary violence that often come with an action movie. While the Elysian medical technology gives new meaning to the unbeatable bad-guy, there is no 20-minute fight scene, jumping through spurious reactors and it certainly is not missed. By cutting the film down to it’s essential parts Blomkamp is able to emphasise the short sharp action sequences; the slow motion disintegration of a robot or the complete explosion of a body are far more effective and affecting given their scarcity.
Elysium is an action movie for people who don’t like action movies, the story is great and powers along with none of the trappings of your typical shoot ‘em up. The social message is clearly delivered but not overstated and so avoids being preachy, and the sci-fi elements are so naturally integrated into the story you all but forget its set in space. Not quite a film for all the family, but as near as an action movie is ever going to get.
Written by Charlotte Keeys who also blogs at Jackanory Reviews. Twitter: @jackanoryreviews.