This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 18th August 2013
Neill Blomkamp, the bright young South African whose star burgeoned with the release of his breakout hit District 9, is back four years later with a significantly bigger production. He now has the clout to get a major filmstar as his lead, so Matt Damon (who got the role after the first-choice, rapper Eminem, declined) plays Max, one of the many worker bees living in brutalised poverty on a devastated planet Earth in the year 2154.
The rich Earthlings have abandoned it to inhabit an idyllic space station called Elysium, where there is no pain, hardship or illness. You can’t blame them – it’s a beautifully rendered New World where the slim and immaculately coiffed live in white stucco mansions. A mere 19 minute shuttle ride away, the hoi polloi slave away in ghettos, pausing occasionally to gaze in envious wonder up to the sky. When Max is stricken by a debilitating work accident, he effects a plan to steal away to Elysium to get cured. But of course in this tale, which boasts elements of 1984, Total Recall and Children of Men, such a dream comes at great cost.
Blomkamp’s visionary sci-fi aesthetic is truly striking throughout, from his perpetually smoking, bombed-out Los Angeles to the detail of technological advances which are painted so naturally you wonder why they haven’t been invented already. Max’s parole officer is a robot programmed to sniff out his sarcasm then offer him the chance to speak to a human; the exosuit transplant that turns him into an action hero is both grotesque and fascinating. Even the villain’s shuttle is the epitome of futuristic style, looking like a Vespa Transformer.
Narratively it’s a fairly standard quest movie, framed against a political commentary on free healthcare (there ain’t any) and the have-nots’ Robin Hood attitude. This is mostly fine because you spend so much time oohing and aahing at the production design, but the obligatory romantic subplot feels weak, lacking chemistry or any real engagement from Damon’s Max, who otherwise does what he can with a fairly one-note character. Jodie Foster makes a good villain despite her one-dimensionally hard heart, perfectly accented as the French Secretary of Defence who speaks flawless English.
But the standout baddie is District 9’s Sharlto Copley, clearly relishing the chance to play against his previous role and thus superbly sinister as the hired gun with his sharp Afrikaans lilt and rapist tendencies. (New Zealand audiences familiar with the tone of our new cousins may find him somewhat amusing, but one wonders if the Americans will understand a word.) Copley is a delight in every scene, and after his brief foray into Hollywood with The A-Team, this role ought to open doors much wider.
Elysium doesn’t impress to quite the extent that District 9 did when it burst onto the scene, but it is nonetheless a spectacular-looking work with a terrific premise and some awesome weaponry.