South African director Neill Blomkamp burst onto cinema screens in 2009 with his superb debut film District 9. That film intelligently mixed sci-fi spectacle with biting humour, Kafkaesque themes of identity loss and potent social commentary about poverty, the plight of refugees and socio-economic and racial divisions in South Africa. District 9 was always going to be a tough act to follow and Blomkamp’s latest film, the similar-looking and similarly-themed Elysium, suffers by comparison.
Like District 9, Elysium is set in a not too distant future dystopia where overpopulation and environmental devastation have left the Earth all but uninhabitable. While the poor live on Earth in vast teeming slums, the rich live in a clean, manicured Utopian world on a massive space station called Elysium that hovers above the Earth. For those blessed with citizenship, Elysium offers not only luxury but also sophisticated medical technology that can cure almost any illness or injury. Denied citizenship of Elysium, Earth’s terminally make, what are deemed, illegal shuttle flights to the space station hoping desperately to access their medical resources. Few, however, make it to Elysium alive. A dying factory worker and former criminal Max (Matt Damon) tries to make the journey to Elysium in the hope of curing himself but in the process hits upon a plan that may shatter the inequality between the two worlds.
The early stages of this film, in which a hideously divided and inequitable world is established, are as potent as anything in District 9 and provide striking parallels with the current asylum seeker tragedies that have dominated the news. Unfortunately, after such a promising start, Elysium transforms into a predictable and at times overcooked sci-fi/ action movie. Too often the latter part of the film simply descends into shoot-outs and lumbering fight scenes which suffer badly from the dreaded wobble-cam. Whereas District 9 seamlessly dovetailed social satire, art direction, action sequences and special effects, Elysium seems disjointed. The film also becomes disturbingly heavy-handed with overly-sentimental use of slow motion flashbacks depicting Damon as a child falling for the girl (Alice Braga) he would later try to save.
While the script is mildly disappointing, Elysium is a technical triumph as Blomkamp once again displays his astonishing flair for inventive visuals. His juxtaposition of a squalid poverty-stricken Los Angeles against the gleaming, synthetically perfect world of Elysium is stunning. Also, as in District 9, this film contains astonishing photo-realistic cgi space ship and robot effects. The film is also brimming with technological ideas such as futuristic weaponry and electronic interfaces between humans, computers and robots that recall the disturbing visions of William Gibson and Phillip K Dick.
The ever-reliable Matt Damon, although swamped by the elaborate visuals, still manages to draw on his established persona of quiet decency and make Max a sympathetic character. By contrast, Jodie Foster is nowhere near her best and looks weirdly uncomfortable as Elysium’s security Chief. Most disappointing though is Sharlto Copley who was so memorable in District 9 as the hilarious but ultimately tragic Wikus. Looking like a crazed version of Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, he hams it up wickedly as a vile and at times, unintelligible mercenary who kills on Delacourt’s secret orders.
While Elysium is often phenomenally inventive in its depiction of futuristic technology and our divided world, its frequent capitulation to Hollywood action formula is disturbing.
Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.
Director(s): Neill Blomkamp.
Release date: 15th Aug 2013
Running time: 109 mins.
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