If you had the great luck to check out the Science Fiction surprise District 9, you were introduced to South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, who painted the perfect 'Can't we all get along?' apartheid story. His newest release, the distopian Elysium, isn't as provocative or as meaningful, but it does strengthen his resume as an up-and-coming director in an intriguing batch of rising stars.
Set in the year 2154, Elysium is more like A Tale of Two Cities, except this one features an Earth choking on its own pollution, crime, and absolute destitution. Robots patrol the streets, but no one seems willing to stop the human misery. Enter the ex-con Max (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity), who's trying to put his life back on track. With his head shaved and a body full of tattoos, Max works at the local plant which makes the robotic henchman who early in the show break his arm while conducting a search. It's in the hospital that he gets stitched up by his childhood buddy Frey (Alice Braga, Predators), whom we learn was an orphan like Max. While building a group of robots, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, giving him only five days to live. He immediately turns his attention to the paradise that is Elysium, an orbiting space station filled with the well-to-do's who were rich enough to escape Earth years before. Their wealth has afforded them elegant homes and bio-beds which repair every manner of illness. Max sees this as the only way to survive, so he agrees to a gothic transformation whereby his body is outfitted with the same machines he built for so long.
But Elysium isn't so pristene, as Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodi Foster, Contact) is scheming to stage a coup using the same machines manufactured by Max and owned by tycoon Carlyle (William Fichtner, The Dark Knight). A brilliant coder, Carlyle agrees to write a program that will depose the president; but when he's killed by Max's hit squad, Max downloads the program into his new cybernetic brain, unleashing Delacourt's mercenary Kruger, played by District 9's Sharlto Copley. As Max and Frey breach Elysium, all the players gather to wage war on each other, leading to a powerful and unexpected third act.
Blomkamp channels every Science Fiction classic of the last 50 years, from the space station in Kubrick's 2001 to the lens flare of JJ Abrams' Star Trek. He loves using the slow-motion death scene, turning humans and machines into cinematic splatter. And while his literary message (he served as penner, too) is a little too egalitarian, the vision is nothing short of stunning. In a year where CGI has been all over the map, Elysium is spot on, mixing the right amount of organic so that our actors have something to actually react towards. Several of the action sequences between the robots and humans look as real as anything you'll see, partially due to Blomkamp's actors. Damon plays the tragic anti-hero with a desperate edge, while Foster oozes political cool; they're only on screen together for a paltry time, but each manages to make their mark throughout the film.
Elysium might suffer from futuristic dystopian burnout, but it also didn't get much love in the marketing department, and that will certainly play itself out as it goes head-to-head with the better advertised We're the Millers. Even so, that shouldn't be a reason for you to skip this one; because while the setting is nothing new, the rise of this director is worth catching on the big screen. Elysium is rated R for strong bloody violence and language, and has a runtime of 109 minutes.
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