(Neill Blomkamp, 2013)
I love when a movie starts with a low burble of 1980s synthesiser. Which is exactly how Neill Blomkamp's Elysium begins.
After that, it dips a little. Sun-hazy scenes of children in a dystopian future Los Angeles and rapid world-building clutter the first act, establishing a 2154 world where the rich (mainly white) citizens of Earth have fled to Elysium, an orbiting "habitat" on a space station where there is constant sunshine, no sickness and none of the nasty Latinos who fill the overpopulated slums of Earth. That is where we find Max (Matt Damon) one of the children from those sun-hazy scenes. An ex-con now working in a factory, an industrial accident leaves him with only days to live, and Elysium and its miraculous machines becomes his only hope. To get there he undergoes surgery fusing him with an exoskeleton, giving him strength the equal of the droids patrolling both worlds as sentinels. But Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and the vicious Kruger (Sharlto Copley) stand in his way, and the need to get the terminally ill daughter of his old friend Frey (Alice Braga) to Elysium doesn't make it any easier.
The allegory here is perhaps too obvious and too simple, but at least Blomkamp is trying to say something, at least his film has something on its mind beyond its explosions and weak, predictable character arcs. Because for all that it is thematically a little trite, its major flaw is the cheesiness of much of its drama, from the awkward characterisation of players like Wagner Moura's frequently unintelligible gang boss Spider, to the dull, overly simplified politicking on Elysium itself involving Delacourt and William Fichtner's hollow cartoon of a spineless executive. The scenes showcasing Max's daily life recall similar scenes in other sci-fi films (last year's tepid Total Recall remake, for instance) without ever transcending them.
But Blomkamp is at home with action. He understands how it works and how to work it. He can make an action sequence really sting, and once the story proper gets underway here and Max is in motion, the film takes on its own momentum which renders some of the other complaints largely irrelevant. Blomkamp shoots action scenes which are coherent (a rarity in modern spectacle filmmaking), visceral and thrillingly nasty. Violence in his world has consequences. People get hurt, faces get pulped. But he is able to combine that brutality with a gee-whiz quality, indulging in cool shots and relishing the process of the fights he is depicting. Max is an amateur throughout, a little out of his depth even when augmented, which helps lend a pleasing edge of suspense to the climactic face-off with Kruger. Their fighting styles are individual too; Max doesn't really know what he is doing even as he grows more confident in his new strength, whereas Kruger is a specialist and perhaps overconfident as a result.
That they have an (immensely satisfying) final showdown indicates how well Blomkamp understands the needs of the action genre.
Damon is a massive boon to a film like this; an undoubted movie star, he combines a charismatic watchability with an everyman quality, and he has the acting chops to pull off Max's desperation and his slow journey towards acceptance of what must happen. Copley (as usual?) chews scenery throughout, but he does offer a scary sense of unpredictable threat which contributes to the tension of the last act. Jodie Foster, on the other hand, makes a series of terrible decisions, speaking in a weird accent, opting for oddly inappropriate or campy line-readings which rob her pivotal scene of much of its intended impact. Alice Braga is typecast here as the spunky-yet-soulful Latin spitfire we've seen her play many times before.
The technical credits are all strong, with the production design particularly inventive; underlining the allegory, this is a future-world that looks very much like now, and the differences between Earth tech (worn down, gritty, industrial) and Elysium tech (slick, seamless, digital) only add to the palpable textures of Blomkamp's film. That helps when it comes to the body horror element of the plot, which, as in his previous film, the similarly interesting but flawed District 9, is one of the strongest passages here.