Elysium is the explosively visceral second film from Neill Blomkamp, the director behind the science fiction hit District 9 (2009). Max De Costa (Matt Damon) is a factory worker with a criminal past living in Los Angeles in 2154, which has transformed into a dilapidated favela thanks to mounting overpopulation and poverty. Barely scraping an honest living together and ever tempted by crime, Max, like every other inhabitant of Earth, is enchanted by Elysium, the exclusive gated community that sits above the polluted skies. Suspended above Earth, the rich live out their days in luxury, happily ignoring the poverty and terrible conditions of those trapped below. After an industrial accident, Max is left with only five days to live. He chooses to spend this time fighting against the oppressors who kept him and his kind subdued for generations, using a complement of futuristic weaponry not dissimilar to the kind Blomkamp made infamous in District 9.
Ideologically, the film is an intriguing yet unsubtle celebration of the far left wing. In its depiction of the proletariat nobly waging guerrilla warfare on the interplanetary bourgeoisie, it is an absorbing social commentary, in keeping with Blomkamp's previous film. The unique depiction of Earth is a wonderful piece of world-building. Graffiti and gang signs cover everything including futuristic machinery, hospitals and even space shuttles. It makes for a captivating metaphor of this dystopian world, which sharply contrasts the sterile, white environments of Elysium. The musical score switches between sophisticated classical melodies on Elysium to the coarse grimy drum and bass rattling out of boom boxes in Los Angeles, noticeably distinguishing the differences between class factions.
The action is frequent and dynamic, although will no doubt challenge the suspension of disbelief for some viewers. Heavily reliant on shaky cameras and CGI, which is more than impressive, the numerous fight scenes play out like a video game. Borrowing from the format, consistent over-the-shoulder and back-of-the-head camerawork is employed along with excessive weaponry. The police force of Earth, entirely composed of assembly line robot enforcers, look stunning, using state-of-the-art visual effects that are not dissimilar to video game enemies. These elements considerably reinforce the impression of being in a game, along with other noticeable inspirations such as explosive shurikens, or similarities to the gaming worlds of Halo, Mass Effect and Dead Space. The association with video games will be unsurprising to those who remember how Blomkamp was originally tied to the failed Halo film, an intended adaptation of the wildly popular video game franchise that was declared dead in 2007 due to problems in production. Many assets from the aborted project would go on to be used in the production of District 9.
Sadly, Elysium does suffer from a rather boring protagonist. This is a peculiar happenstance for Matt Damon who does his best with the character he is given. He starts off as a reformed working man but transforms into a determined, gung ho and rather generic street soldier hell bent on vengeance. The film's empty and uneventful romantic sub-plot between Max and Frey (Alice Braga) does not help things. The film's antagonist, Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) was originally Secretary Rhodes, a male character. But Rhodes was rewritten by Blomkamp specifically for Jodie Foster after she became available, perhaps after realising that his films are almost completely devoid of strong female characters. Although Foster's Delacourt is perfectly hateable and succeeds at earning the viewer’s disdain, the character has few feminine attributes and seems to have all the decidedly male swagger and boisterous arrogance of the snooty Rhodes she was drawn from, making her a two-dimensional baddie rather than a strongly motivated female villain. Instead, Sharlto Copley steals the show as Agent Kruger, a paramilitary operative of Elysium on Earth and a politically immune criminal. Kruger is a significantly more satisfying villain, much more involved in Max's own narrative and deliciously scummy.
Elysium is another worthwhile effort by the talented Neill Blomkamp. The director succeeds at creating yet another breathtaking adventure laced with the same flavour of progressive rhetoric as his debut feature but unfortunately with lacklustre characterisation and a more forced message. Where District 9 taught us to care because we were following a villain who changed his ways to understand the people he hated, Elysium paints us a simpler black and white portrait of good verses evil with upper and under-class designations.