From the director of “District 9” comes this summer’s best sci-fi blockbuster offering.
There have been some dazzling moments in this year’s blockbuster season but it’s safe to say most offerings have left audiences, not to mention the big studios’ pockets, feeling rather empty. What better time for Neill Blomkamp to drop his second feature? His excellent debut District 9 managed to bag a tonne of cash on the relatively tiny budget of $30 million. It also made an alien slum in Johannesburg seem entirely plausible. Blomkamp’s kitty is a touch larger this time but it certainly hasn’t blunted the director’s edge; his second feature Elysium is a breathless spectacle, chock-full of the sort of ideas which make the sci-fi genre great.
The year is 2154 and the wealthy elite have flown the coop to the orbiting paradise of Elysium; a sterile, villa-laden space station where sickness and aging have been eradicated – as long as you’re a citizen, that is. Things aren’t so rosy back home: Earth looks to be one sprawling favela. Matt Damon plays Max, an earth dweller struggling to leave his misspent youth behind and earn an honest buck. It’s proving tough. Max’s past seems to keep getting him in hot water with the authorities – now an automated droid police with a real knack for human bureaucracy – while the only work on offer lies in the hideous local munitions factory. An accident there leaves Max four days to live with his only hope for care on the distant Elysium. A cyber revolutionary named Spider offers to get him there but Max will need to “mech up” and steal the neuro-information of an Elysium citizen, and a frightening mercenary named Kruger lies in wait.
Fans of Blomkamp’s first film might find this story arc a bit familiar – South African mercenaries in a helicopter chase a somewhat mutated human with some lucrative otherworldly attribute through a shanty town – but it would be absurd to call this film unoriginal. Refreshingly economical in its use of CGI, the array of weaponry and machinery are a feast of design while the casting offers a host of delicious scene stealing; Jodie Foster’s Machiavellian minister has some interesting shades of Christine Lagarde (surely unintentional?) while Sharlto “Fookin” Copley is immense as the katana-wielding Kruger.
Aside from all that showmanship, Elysium, like all good sci-fi, thrives on a simple idea with a touch of social commentary – while the underlying theme here is painted with a giant, clumsy roller, there is something a bit subtler at work. Blomkamp might like to put his heroes through the ringer but it’s not all for thrills. The director seems to have a belief in human perseverance, especially from those of lesser means, and despite Hollywood’s supposed liberalism, for a tent-pole summer film to have that sort of ethos these days still feels subversive. Given the Dream Factory’s increasingly risk-free assembly line, the film’s non-sequel/adaptation/remake-ness is also an anomaly. Steven Spielberg thinks that assembly line will eventually produce an “implosion” in the film industry – if the moneymen throw more cash at people like Blomkamp there might still be some hope.
Elysium | Directed by Neill Blomkamp (USA, 2013) with Matt Damon, Shartlo Copley and Jodie Foster. Starts August 15