- Running time
- 109 min
- Neill Blomkamp
- Screen writer
- Neill Blomkamp
- Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
- OFLC rating
- MA 15+
Reviewer's rating: 6/10
Sci-fi, rated MA, 109 minutes, now showing
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura
Verdict: A soft, familiar sci-fi romp, saved by the charms of Matt Damon
Just four years ago, Neill Blomkamp, a South African expat based in Canada, appeared as if from nowhere to rewrite the rule book on science fiction.
His debut feature, District 9, which was supported by Peter Jackson, would go on to be nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, and make $US200 million at the global box office. Not bad for a $US30 million independent film, shot in South Africa with an unknown cast by an unknown director.
Matt Damon (left) and Sharlto Copley in Elysium. Photo: Stephanie Blomkamp
Now, armed with a budget three times the size of District 9's, Blomkamp is back, with his first studio picture: a continuation, of sorts, from where we left off. Where District 9 passed comment on segregation (for aliens as much as humans), Elysium pitches the haves against the have-nots (the poor live on a dilapidated Earth, the wealthy on a nearby space station with perfect lawns and swimming pools). The filmmakers insist the film was in production before the Occupy movement, but the chime of social commentary here rings familiar to that call to arms.
Again, Blomkamp has neatly woven timely issues into a thoroughly original sci-fi vision onscreen, only Elysium doesn't display any of the comedic smarts that made District 9 so engaging and unique. Making a studio picture is no laughing matter. Hence, Max (Matt Damon) is not a patch on his predecessor Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a vulnerable buffoon of the law, whose descent into alien infection was riveting and nauseous. But Copley returns here, playing a thug for hire, Kruger. Damon is, as ever, thoroughly watchable as a factory worker, dreaming one day of a better life, possibly in Elysium (where one's bodily ills are cured at the drop of a hat).
For now, Max is in Los Angeles, 2154 (filmed at Mexico's second-largest garbage dump), a decimated, overcrowded shell of a place, where he is bullied by overzealous robot security officers then tended to by a former flame, Freya (Alice Braga). They're former childhood sweethearts who grew up in the same orphanage.
Freya has a daughter with leukaemia. After an accident at work, Max - riddled with radiation - is also in need of Elysium's healthcare program, so he agrees to do one final job for crime kingpin Spider (Wagner Moura) for a free (illegal) ride to Elysium. Max's target is a corrupt Elysium suit, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), whose secret plans for a coup to install secretary of defence Delacourt (a suitably sharp Jodie Foster) as president look all but certain to succeed. Except for the might of people power!
Elysium initially appears to have something intriguing to say about the growing chasm between rich and poor, as well as immigration. The illegal trips Spider organises to Elysium - and Delacourt's brutish treatment of that cargo - makes this reviewer think of Australia's harsh treatment of asylum seekers. The divide between those who have and those who don't is not science fiction but reality. When we have ravaged the planet of all its nutrients, those who can afford it will no doubt live elsewhere, far from the maddening crowd of discontent.
Disappointingly, the film ditches these issues as it descends into a formulaic pattern of action. Max is a man on a mission to save himself, Freya's daughter, Matilda, and humanity. There's little time in which to do so. For those expecting more, particularly after the exemplary District 9, Elysium will feel underwhelming. Audiences in the US felt the same way, with the $US115 million film having a noticeably soft opening weekend (taking $US30.5 million).
Damon's recent lightning-quick visit Down Under to generate interest in the film might just be enough to save it here.
Were it not for Damon, Elysium would be a largely forgettable sci-fi dystopian romp, to rank alongside other recent end-of-the-world films that left audiences cool (Pacific Rim, After Earth). Given his everyman charisma, Damon again transforms a fairly run-of-the-mill character - albeit one who has evidently worked out like a maniac in the gym, feeding on a high-protein diet - into something eminently watchable on screen. It's just unfortunate that, given its predecessor's smarts, Elysium fails to capture any of District 9's spirit or sense of originality and wonder. We've seen this all before.