Movie Review: Blomkamp’s topical “Elysium” puts him firmly in the front ranks of sci-fi filmmakers

ImageNeill Blomkamp may be well on his way to becoming the only sci-fi writer-director who matters. And if “Elysium” is more an evolutionary leap than a revolutionary one from his break-out hit “District 9,” it still shows him in great form telling a story from the future ripped from today’s political hot button issues.
Blomkamp looked at his still racially divided native South Africa and concocted a tale of “Us vs. Them” that blurred the sci-fi boundaries between an alien species and the natives for “District 9.” He arrived in Los Angeles and picked up on the Occupy Movement, the immigration debate and the rationing-by-cost nature of American health care and came up with “Elysium,” a violent, derivative and yet thoroughly entertaining trip into the future through the lens of the today’s zeitgeist.
A hundred years from now, Earth has become a Wall-E world — overcrowded, polluted, littered with high-rise shantytowns where Thomas Hobbes’ description of humanity is more apt than ever. Life is “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” But on the gigantic, green and sunny space station Elysium, the one percent live well, live long and have their every illness cured in a jiffy.
Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) has grown up on this Earth-as-Third-World future, a bilingual ex-con who works in a factory where safety regulations have vanished in a Los Angeles that’s become more poly-Hispanic and more poor, patrolled by armed droids and drones.
The desperate and “undocumented” still make a break for the border. But that entails a shuttle flight into orbit where Elysium’s security chief (Jodie Foster, slinging a sort of pan-European accent) has most of them shot down and the rest deported.
An accident at work dooms Max, unless he can get to Elysium for a cure. He makes a deal with crime lord Spider (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) to kidnap Max’s former boss (William Fichtner) and download the contents of his brain, a way “in” to Elysium where Max might be cured, his ex-girlfriend (Alice Braga) can get treatment for her daughter and a little fairness can drip back into an unfair universe.
The main obstacle in Max’s way? Kruger, an Earthbound mercenary, played with sadistic glee by Sharlto Copley of “District 9.”
Blomkamp filters a lot of other people’s sci-fi ideas into this, from “Johnny Mnemomic” and “Mad Max” to “Blade Runner”, “In Time” and “Iron Man.” He spares no grisly, realistic detail in showing the surgery Max endures to prep him to fight (an exo-skeleton is added) and download (a dataport is implanted in his skill), and that gives this film a punch that most of the summer’s sci-fi and action entries have lacked.
Nothing looks digital here. This world looks worn, patchwork and lived in.
The cosmopolitan casting works well enough, although Damon often seems smarter than the character, Foster’s chilliness is a simple archetype and Copley’s psychotic villain turn is WAY over the top. Fichtner is so good at playing villains that it’s a pity that’s virtually all he gets to play these days (See “Ranger, Lone”).
“Don’t BREATHE on me” the rich guy hisses at his Earthbound employees, making us smell the planet that the rich have chosen to flee.
Throw-away moments — a doctor casually and callously taps a restrained Max on the head with his notepad computer in the middle of a conversation with a colleague — work better than the scripted dialogue, which is too often of the”You IDIOT, do you realize what you’ve DONE?” variety.
But appreciate “Elysium” for what it is, sci-fi that’s smarter, more topical and more invigorating than most of what passes through that genre these days, and another sign that its director is the most promising chap to enter the field since the inception of Christopher Nolan.

MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence and language throughout
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, Diego Luna
Credits: Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. A Sony/Tristar release
Running time: 1:48

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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8 Responses to Movie Review: Blomkamp’s topical “Elysium” puts him firmly in the front ranks of sci-fi filmmakers

  1. Kid Carboy Jr. says:

    Nice way to malign every sci-fi filmmaker in the world with that first line. How about Duncan Jones? I’d call him the most promising sci-fi filmmaker out there today.

    • Duncan Jones doesn’t seem like a genre filmmaker. I was paying him a compliment. He’ll work outside the genre. Blomkamp has another project or two lined up in sci-fi.

      • Kid Carboy Jr. says:

        Jones has made exactly two features that were both sci fi and his upcoming feature is fantasy. Perhaps he’ll make non-genre stuff in the future, but to date everything he’s produced has been.

  2. doombuggy says:

    I couldn’t get over the weird racialism: everyone on the space station is White, or acts like a White person; everyone on Earth is a person of color or derivative thereof. Jodie Foster’s character is blazingly blonde and blue eyed, decked out in frigidaire white. Might as well have put a pointy hood on her. And they had her speaking French during one of the apparently endless garden parties; I was expecting someone to urgently whisper in her ear, “madame, the people on Earth have no bread…”

    And apparently no awareness of this. There was more moral frisson in the trailer for ‘Captain Phillips’. It has been suggested that ‘District 9’s message was that the lower classes can’t take care of themselves at a civilizational level without guidance from the upper classes. I didn’t get any larger message from ‘Elysium’, except maybe a meta one that all the good stuff is invented and nurtured by White people, and others have to steal it if they want something akin to it.

    The cute little girl with leukemia got to be a little thin, carried about like a sack of potatoes, or passively crawling into a medical machine. At least have her shoot through a horde of robots to reach the machine, only to have Delacourt grab her leg at the last moment and try to pull her out, at which point the girl pulls her grandmother’s crucifix from around her neck and stab Delacourt in the hand; Delacourt reels backward in horror at the sight of her own blood; revealed to be in full vampire regalia; at which point Kruger bursts in in full werewolf mode and finishes off Delacourt. Something like that. Shoot it in PG, with the girl the main protagonist; working 16 hour days arranging dirt piles outside the factory; supporting 27 other people; but she gets sick and the mean White foreman fires her; etc etc. And give us some moral dialog: Delacourt screeching that “you didn’t build that, someone else made that happen: while the girl raises her chemrail gun and yells “por la raza todo! fuera de la raza nada!”

    And everyone on Earth looked a little too well fed. They should have been starving and emaciated for maximum sympathy. I admired the lean and hungry looking Somalians in ‘Captain Phillips’: at least they looked like they could use the calories from a freighter or two.

  3. doombuggy says:

    I just came across this review, which explains some things I was wondering about.

    • The race thing is less overt than you suggest. I noticed it until I saw it defused with people of various colors (not many) on Elysium, and plenty of white folks on Earth with MAtty boy.

    • doombuggy says:

      It seemed pretty “in your face” despite a few tokens.

      I think Blomkamp, the race sensitive and artistically astute South African, looked around the US and gave us a reflection: White guys are the butt of all jokes in the media; vast gov’t resources are put into the extinguishing of any White privilege; somehow tag George Zimmerman with a “white” label to make him more evil, maybe call him a White Hispanic; etc. Yet at the same time the most desirable areas to live and work are built and maintained by White people, and people immigrate here in great numbers to escape what their non-White kin built. So in Elysium all the evil heavy lifting is done by a White: shooting down crippled kids; ordering the factory worker to do something dangerous. But also, if you need something majorly good done, like build a space station, or get a sick kid to treatement, go with the White guy.

      I caught a clip on Conan O’Brien with Diego Luna. Conan was his painful self, but they got into the rise of Spanish speaking in the US, and Diego got on a triumphalist line, saying that eventually the US will be exclusively a Spanish speaking country and look like Elysium. Lisa Kudrow gave a little comeback. Conan just goofed. It made me think that everyone except White people can advocate for themselves on racial grounds.

      • I did not see that clip, though I imagine it was trumpeted on all “The usual websites” where paranoia about “reconquista” is all the rage. Luna isn’t an American and doesn’t know what he’s talking about, trends wise. Sounds like he was going for the shock laugh. And Blomkamp shot the film in Mexico, which is already “Elysium”, to some degree. Is that the future of LA? “Blade Runner” called it first.

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