A visual feast for the eyes, Elysium manages to keep its head above water despite a sparse story. I think it’s fair to say that writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature, District 9, gave a lot of filmmakers pause. Here was a fresh story by a new filmmaker told brilliantly. This was blockbuster science fiction on a dime’s budget that wowed audiences and critics alike. So I was eagerly awaiting his sophomore effort, Elysium, and went in expecting anything and everything. I had avoided most of the trailers and details about the film. I wanted a fresh experience, just like District 9, and I’m glad I did.
Blomkamp wants to break the reputation of science fiction cinema and the way we think of characters. Often, our “hero” is riding that line between good and bad. He also loves to play with violence and how affecting it can be. Is Elysium more violent than District 9?
At times I’d say it absolutely is. A grenade blows up in someone’s face and you see the damage, front and center. That’s the point, though. His violence, unlike most cinema today, is there to elicit an emotional reaction. It’s not for shock value; it’s to move you. When you create characters that you root for, despite them being somewhat good or bad, and you see them violently torn apart, you can’t help but feel something. Yet, these moments are often a joy to witness as well. The way the violence is done hints at realism and you believe what you see isn’t just an idea, but what would actually happen.
We focus on Matt Damon’s Max, who has lived through quite a bit already and just when he seems to have things settled he is thrown down a dangerous path that leads him to do extraordinary things. We’re in the future, and Los Angeles and the rest of the U.S. seems to be overcrowded to the point of sheer absurdity. The rich have left and formed a floating colony in space called Elysium, where it’s said they suffer no disease and seemingly even avoid death. But protecting that place is Jodie Foster’s Delacourt, charged with the defense of the floating wheel. You see, it’s not for the poor. With that, we know the game. Max dreams of going there, legally. He wants to buy a ticket. He’s not getting one, though.
The game is too easy to spoil, so I’ll leave you with that. Which, is both a detriment and a blessing. So often films make things overly complex. Here, Blomkamp sets up a few dominoes and lets them fall in glorious action and detail. Even when things take predictable turns, they feel like a rush. The first time we really see guns blazing during a hijacking sequence, there’s a moment of motion blur that is absolutely stunning as if the camera is struggling to keep up with the action. And the sequences with the androids are absolutely fantastic. Whether they’re practical effects or completely digital, it’s hard to discern and that’s a hint at just how well they are pulled off.
The dialogue is another issue altogether and it ranges from typical fluff to fun. Damon is low-key and wounded. Foster, on the other hand, is her typical hot-headed self which she pulls off so well even if every word from her mouth—save for some obvious film-specific vocabulary—has probably been uttered by her in other films. But the real fun is Shalto Copley. He’s disheveled, constantly cloaked, and often sporting a gnarly arrangement of overgrown facial hair.
He looks like a mountain man fresh off a bad hangover, and it’s his character that locks you in to watch for the long-haul. He’s a man on a mission and every word he says seems to come from a different world. His voice itself ranges from high-pitched to a low growl, and it’s easy to see how he balances against Spider, played by Wagner Moura. They both have an air of interesting qualities. They’re the game-changers in this film, and yet they couldn’t be different in how they’re pulled off.
Elysium is far from a sophomore stumble from Blomkamp. Yet, when your first film is as generally well-received and wholly original as District 9, it’s hard to climb higher. Fun, fast-paced, and with moments of sheer absurdity in action and visuals, Elysium is a thrill to watch. Everyone seems to embrace the world and the situations with Copley the definite standout once again. Blomkamp proves that he has a handle on giving us a dynamic film experience even if the story isn’t quite as original or creative.