In 2009, a relatively unknown South African director, Neill Blomkamp (with the help of Peter Jackson) unleashed District 9 upon the world. The result was one of the most impressive feature debuts of recent times, and even more impressively, a science fiction film that felt fresh, vital and instantly iconic. Now, in 2013, Blomkamp returns with another science fiction film, Elysium, built around the same combination of intense action and political subtext that made District 9 so effective.

In the year 2154, two classes exist: the extremely wealthy, who have left a decaying earth for the man-made space station paradise of Elysium, and the rest of humanity, who have no choice but to survive on an overpopulated, ruined Earth, corrupted by man’s influence. One such member of the masses is Max, a man who has dreamed all his life of one day reaching Elysium. An accident leaves Max in a desperate situation, and turns his dream into a life saving quest…one that will transform him, and leave the fate of humanity’s future in his hands. If he succeeds, he won’t just save his life…he’ll save millions.

In the lead role of Max, Matt Damon delivers a magnetic performance, full of personality, grit and vulnerability. No easy feat for a man physically upgraded into a near super soldier by the exo-skeleton, HULC suit, one of the most fantastic sci-fi weapons in decades. But it is the humanity of Damon that shines throughout this film; the warm light the film clings to and redeems it from the more hollow mainstream factors of the film. This is Damon underlining his position as one of the most engaging and artful actors working in action cinema, which he previously established in the Bourne series.

However, it is not only Damon who excels in Elysium. In fact, Sharlto Copley steals the film as the villain of the piece, the unhinged and monstrous government mercenary, Kruger. Copley’s performance is electric; it is somehow both drawn in bold strokes, and nuanced subtle lines. The energy and dark humour he brings to this deplorable character make him the dark heart of the film, to Max’s bright light. Every moment Kruger enters the film, the world changes around him…and the audience is affected as a result, feeling the presence. It is truly a powerhouse example of how to play a villain in modern cinema, and the only site of true tension and unpredictability within the film.



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Jodie Foster on the other hand is quite frankly rather redundant for a major figure in the narrative. Her character is underwritten and one-dimensional; Foster seemingly attempts to make up for this with a rather harsh and authoritative presence that doesn’t hold the gravitas to make it feel genuine. However, there is one element of the presentation of this character I personally found fascinating, whether it is intentional or unintentional. There is a discord between Foster’s voice and the lips, almost like her voice had been dubbed slightly off. At first this seems jarring in such a prestigious production…however, in my opinion, this tactic reinforces the reality that she is in fact much older than her appearance due to the futuristic technologies of Elysium, creating a disturbing physical reflection of the corruption of the isolated, xenophobic Elysium elite. A superb technical detail for an otherwise disappointing character.

The real star of the film though is the universe Blomkamp has created. As he previously established in District 9, Blomkamp is a master of developing a believable, yet outlandish future Earth, rich in texture and atmosphere. The dilapidated, crowded and sun scorched Los Angeles of 2154 is an absolute treat; a dystopia that owes more to scorched earth of George Miller’s Max Max trilogy than the noir styling of sci-fi Los Angeles, often inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. There is a truth to the world, and a very real sense of human character build into the styling of the environment. Blomkamp understands how human identity, attitude and emotion is reflecting the world around us, and how we choose to live. This hyper-real world is contrasted against the shining, pristine world of Elysium, that is completely artificial, even down to exaggerating the rare bright colours in this world of glass, chrome and dazzling white. It is the first two thirds of the film, focused predominantly on Los Angeles and Max’s descent into danger, that are the most distinctive and compelling, allowing for Blomkamp’s world to express itself in all it’s depth and texture. Unfortunately, once the Max leaves Earth and finally arrives on Elysium, the film loses its focus, lacking the detail and character of the Earth and feels rushed to a conclusion that is unsatisfying, forgettable and even clichéd.

Perhaps the quality that feels most critically absent within the film is that of surprise, or more specifically, the sense of the unexpected. District 9 was a film that never allowed the audience to settle; you were not sure about what amazing moment, either in terms of spectacle or character revealing, was going to happen next. Elysium is just too…’Hollywood’ at times, and while it is exciting and even gripping at times, there are no surprises. It is beautifully crafted, but it only makes the film feel rigid, held along a conventional path that is smooth when it should be rough and exhilarating. It’s almost paint by numbers at times, and this linear narrative structure is detrimental to the film.

Where the blend of spectacle and message was hard and impactful in District 9, here it feels soft and lacks power. Questions about overpopulation, the potential damage mankind is causing the planet, and the ever-increasing distance between classes are handled rather obviously and clunky at times. The move into the mainstream has dulled the punch Blomkamp delivered in his debut. While it is somewhat unfair to compare this film so greatly to his previous masterpiece, District 9, the similarity in structure makes it impossible to avoid comparison…and it is undeniable that Elysium is a more accomplished film, but crucially, it is also weaker film, not just in terms of communicating its message but as a complete science fiction vision.

Ultimately, Elysium is an extremely watchable and precisely crafted piece of modern science fiction, dominated by Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley’s powerhouse hero and villain performances, and Blomkamp’s immaculate ability to craft a believable, texted universe. However, like the film’s hero, reaching to the sky for his dream, Elysium reaches for greatness…but disappointingly falls short. The awkward combination of a lack of humour and just too much conventionality come together to make Elysium a film that feels like it could have been more.

VERDICT: [rating=3]


About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul250190@gmail.com