Dir/scr: Neill Blomkamp. US. 2013. 109mins


As with his 2009 debut, the Best Picture-nominated District 9, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up mixes sci-fi action and social parable — not consistently successfully but always emphatically. Recalling Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) by way of WALL-E, Elysium is best appreciated as an intense, brawny, effects-heavy spectacle that benefits from Matt Damon’s sympathetic performance. Unfortunately, the film’s higher aspirations — dramatic grandeur, political commentary — never come across as anything less than heavy-handed, more enjoyably overblown than genuinely captivating.

As an action director, Blomkamp has improved greatly since District 9, beefing up his set pieces so that they hum with tension and energy.

Opening August 9 in North America and quickly expanding across the globe within the month, Elysium carries expectations that Blomkamp’s previous film didn’t have. District 9’s $211m worldwide haul made a sleeper success of a movie that was under the radar because of its first-time feature director and no-name stars. (Lord Of The Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson, who presented District 9, was its most marketable asset.)

Armed with Damon’s box-office firepower, Sony looks to build off of District 9’s critical and commercial favour, and with its impressive effects and wall-to-wall action, Elysium should be broadly appealing to genre fans and mainstream audiences alike. And if the film’s topicality provokes reactions from op-ed pages and cable-TV political programs, that should only help raise awareness for this rare summer movie that isn’t based on existing, well-known source material.

Blomkamp’s original screenplay is set in Los Angeles in 2154. About 60 years earlier, the world’s richest left Earth to live on Elysium, a paradise-like space station hovering above the planet: The weather is beautiful, the vegetation is lush, and medical advancements have cured cancer and can mend broken bones in seconds. But in Los Angeles (and the rest of the planet), life is hard. Max (Damon), a former convict, must work a menial job, the only kind that’s available on the polluted, impoverished, barren, crime-ridden Earth now that all the resources are sent up to Elysium.

After being exposed to a lethal amount of radiation at his job, Max is given days to live, which prompts him to seek out a former criminal associate named Spider (Wagner Moura), who can arrange safe passage for him to Elysium, where his illness can be treated. (The people of Elysium regard those on Earth as second-class citizens, not wanting outsiders on their space station.) But Spider asks Max to do something for him first: kidnap an Elysium official, jack into his neural pathways and upload what’s there into his own head. However, during his neural heist Max stumbles upon a mysterious security file that’s meant for Elysium’s hawkish Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who sends her psychotic enforcer Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to kill Max.

In District 9, which Blomkamp wrote with Terri Tatchell, aliens who landed on Earth were sent to live in camps, and the movie’s storyline clearly spoke to issues of xenophobia and racism. This was especially pointed since the film was set in South Africa, where Blomkamp grew up.

Elysium too deals in bigotry and class systems, with Blomkamp drawing rather obvious parallels between Elysium’s disdain for Earth and some Americans’ frustration with illegal immigration. (The movie extends the metaphor by having Delacourt lecture her superiors about needing to be vigilant about protecting Elysium’s borders, a nod to the United States’ post-9/11 hysteria regarding foreigners, particularly those from the Middle East.)

Unfortunately, such thematic undercurrents are handled without subtlety, Blomkamp presenting these issues with such black-and-white moral clarity that they feel terribly simplistic. Not helping matters is Foster’s strident, one-note portrayal of Delacourt, a heartless government official who views those from Earth as little more than cockroaches. It’s a broad performance without the sort of leavening self-mocking humour that could have given it real zest. Instead, she’s just an uncomplicated cardboard villain.

Damon does much better as the flawed everyman Max. After a chance encounter with Frey (Alice Braga), a woman who was his closest friend when they were children, Max begins to rekindle romantic feelings for her. And although their connection is underdeveloped in the script, Damon’s natural reserves of compassion and feeling help fill in the blanks, suggesting why this former criminal sees in this beautiful, innocent woman a shot at redemption. (By comparison, Braga mostly has to look adoringly at Damon when she isn’t being chased or tormented by Copley.)

While Elysium aspires to be a more thoughtful, politically conscious breed of summer action film, the truth is that it’s best as its most base. As an action director, Blomkamp has improved greatly since District 9, beefing up his set pieces so that they hum with tension and energy. Whether on the grubby surface of Earth or in the pristine corridors of Elysium, the movie delivers a strong variety of fight sequences, each masterfully stitched together by editors Julian Clarke and Lee Smith. (And after his experience with the Bourne trilogy, Damon can effortlessly sell Max’s physical prowess.) The film’s gore quotient may shock some audiences who have gotten used to the largely bloodless terrain of most blockbusters, but Blomkamp grippingly uses exploding heads and broken bones to sell the life-and-death stakes of his tale.

On the technical side, Elysium stuns. Working with three key District 9 collaborators — cinematographer Trent Opaloch, production designer Philip Ivey and visual effects supervisor Peter Muyzers (who was District 9’s digital production supervisor) — Blomkamp has created a future that conjures up memories of other post-apocalyptic films but is nonetheless striking in its own right. The Mad Max­-like bleakness of Earth may be somewhat familiar, but the beauty of the orbiting Elysium entrances.

Beyond the film’s desire for social commentary, Blomkamp also seems to want to create an emotional epic, and it’s commendable that in a summer filled with empty, loud entertainments, Elysium longs to move us. But such kudos must be measured against an execution that consistently confuses overkill and manipulative slow-motion flashbacks with drama. Ryan Amon’s score mostly focuses on rumbling, mechanical music, which adds constant dread, but the incorporation of exotic, mournful chanting during would-be harrowing moments borders on the eye-rolling pomposity of a Michael Bay film.

Still, such inflated grandiosity is in line with a movie whose intensity dial starts in the red and just goes up from there. This is no better demonstrated than in Copley’s go-for-broke portrayal of the sadistic Kruger. Blomkamp’s District 9 star may be merely in a supporting role this time, but his caffeinated, nearly deranged turn dominates every frame in which he appears. To judge from Elysium, nuance just isn’t widely prized in the 22nd century.

Production companies: TriStar Pictures, Media Rights Capital, QED International, Alphacore, Kinberg Genre

US distribution: Sony Pictures, www.sonypictures.com

Producers: Bill Block, Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg

Executive producer: Sue Baden-Powell

Cinematography: Trent Opaloch

Production design: Philip Ivey

Editors: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith

Music: Ryan Amon

Website: www.itsbetterupthere.com

Main Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner