So close and yet so far, the colony of Elysium hovers just outside Earth’s atmosphere, a mere 19-minute shuttle ride away but figurative light years for the downtrodden proletarian masses of the 22nd century. So begins the much-anticipated second feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose 2009 “District 9” was one of the few recent sci-fi/fantasy pics (along with “Inception” and “Children of Men”) that deserved to be called visionary. Here, Blomkamp delivers a less dazzling but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity. Result confirms the helmer as much more than a one-hit wunderkind and should easily surpass “District 9’s” $210 million worldwide haul, if not its massive profit margin.
Expectations can weigh heavily on a young director (Blomkamp is all of 33) who comes out of nowhere with an unexpected critical and commercial smash. But Blomkamp seems fully at ease and in control from the earliest scenes of “Elysium,” which introduce us to a futuristic Los Angeles (circa 2154) that has, in one of the film’s canniest conceits, effectively become Mexico City (where most of the pic was shot). The only apocalypse that happened here was an environmental and economic one, the rich having long ago decamped for their gated community in the sky, leaving the underclasses behind to breathe the polluted air and clamor over the scarce remaining resources. (The overhead shots of the filthy, teeming city, with billowing smoke drifting into a hazy pink sky, recall the opening images of “Blade Runner,” but with the overpopulated centers of the developing world as a template instead of Tokyo.)
Simmering or open class warfare has been a rich trope for sci-fi futurecasting as far back as Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis” and as recently as “In Time,” “Total Recall” and Michael Winterbottom’s fine, underseen “Code 46.” Lang’s influence is particularly evident in “Elysium’s” army of industrious worker bees slaving away on the factory floor of the Armadyne corporation, whose slithery CEO, Carlyle (William Fichtner), developed Elysium and all the technology that makes it run. One of those workers is Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief who used to dream that he might someday buy his own ticket to a better life, but now just keeps his head down and his nose to the grindstone.
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Probably because he had a much larger budget and more studio oversight this time around, Blomkamp must have felt he had to craft a more traditionally heroic protagonist than “District 9’s” incompetent corporate lackey Wikus Van De Merwe, who owed his job to nepotism and found little sympathy on the homefront after being transformed into a mutant alien. Damon’s Max undergoes his own life-altering transformation early on in “Elysium,” doused at work with a toxic dose of radiation that leaves him with only a few days to live. But even before then, Max has a glint in his eyes that tells he’s the one who will somehow lead his people out of darkness.
Max also gets a fairly standard-issue love interest in the form of Frey (Alice Braga), a beneficent nurse who’s been sweet on him ever since their childhood days together in a Catholic orphanage. After years apart, she re-enters his life with a leukemia-stricken daughter in tow. Together, they all seek passage to Elysium, where every home comes equipped with a state-of-the-art healing bay that quite literally cures whatever ails you.
Even working within a more conventional framework, Blomkamp again proves to be a superb storyteller. He has a master’s sense of pacing, slowly immersing us into his future world rather than assailing us with nonstop action, and envisioning that world with an architect’s eye for the smallest details. Everything on Blomkamp and production designer Philip Ivey’s Earth seems built for functionality rather than aesthetics and looks slightly out-of-date, at best 21st-century technology still slogging along decades later, while Elysium is all curvilinear modernism, a triumph of form over function.
Blomkamp writes juicy characters, too, and then gives them grand, florid entrances. As Elysium’s bellicose defense secretary, Delacourt, Jodie Foster is first seen strutting through a poolside cocktail party speaking her perfect French and sporting a ramrod-straight posture that suggests her stiff white jacket was sent to the dry cleaners with her still inside. (Blomkamp and Foster seem to have envisaged the character as a Frankenstein version of Hillary Clinton.) Best of all is “District 9” alumnus Sharlto Copley as Delacourt’s Earthbound mercenary, Kruger, who speaks with a South African accent as thick as the fog on Table Mountain and carries himself with the hardy resolve of a cockroach after the Armageddon. He’s a psycho, but a psycho who seems to operate by his own inner logic, which makes him all the more terrifying and darkly funny.
As for Elysium itself, it remains largely an abstraction, glimpsed only fleetingly and from afar for much of the pic’s running time, during which it seems like a Kubrickian country club with an ineffectual puppet president (Faran Tahir) fully under Delacourt’s thumb. Instead, we spend most of our time on earth where Max, promised a ticket to Elysium by the Che-like revolutionary Spider (Brazilian thesp Wagner Moura, who has the fiery grandiloquence of the late Raul Julia), takes part in a botched kidnapping of Carlyle and ends up on the run from Kruger, one time bomb — the radiation — counting down in his bloodstream while another — classified data downloaded from Carlyle’s brain — ticks away in his skull. A more daring film might have risked putting a human (if not necessarily humane) face on the promised land’s privileged populace, but here they remain a vague, cocktail-partying blur — and, of course, that much easier to despise.
Easier, too, for “Elysium” to advance one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory, beating the drum loudly not just for universal healthcare, but for open borders, unconditional amnesty and the abolition of class distinctions as well. But Blomkamp never makes it clear how, if overpopulation and pollution are what got us into this mess in the first place, moving everyone up to Elysium would make for a sustainable solution; he just wants us to take it on faith that it would.
Yet if “Elysium” falls short as social commentary, as entertainment it rarely falters. The final act, a breathless cat-and-mouse game inside Elysium’s industrial core, Max and Kruger outfitted in mechanical suits that make them look like human Transformers, is at once the most straightforward stuff in the movie and the most exciting, mixing gritty hand-to-hand combat with touches of wuxia-style aerobatics. As in “District 9,” Blomkamp shows a wizardly eye for visual effects, making sure CG images have the proper movement and texture to blend seamlessly with live-action and practical elements. Other craft work is similarly first-rate, including tyro composer Ryan Amon’s judiciously used basso profondo score.