Film Review: Elysium

Elysium comes from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘home of the blessed’. In a way, Neill Blomkamp’s second feature delivers just that, a blessing and refuge from the standard big-budget Hollywood fare. Elysium is a smart, political, original and unforgiving action sci-fi yarn that stands out in a blockbuster season of unimaginative and frightfully safe sequels and remakes.Elysium certainly has big money, but like Blomkamp’s wildly successful District 9, it takes big chances. This is a big, smart action movie. Big budget, big brains, big heart, small story, big message.In 2154, the one per cent has fled the over-polluted, overpopulated squalor of Earth to live on an eternal country club in space, Elysium. Refugees of Earth are constantly trying to break through Elysium’s ruthless borders to access the miracle-standard medical care that only those on Elysium can afford. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict factory worker living on this forsaken future Earth, who is irradiated in a work accident and left with days to live. Refusing to give up on living, for reasons truly unfathomable considering the planet’s state, Max takes a heist job to get his ticket to a cure on Elysium.What begins as one man’s fight to stay alive becomes a revolutionary overturning of the system. At first, Elysium feels almost frustratingly constrained in its story. The allegorical backdrop is significant enough to sustain interest, but the lead characters lack personality. Both Damon and Jodie Foster as treasonous Defence Secretary Delacourt are bland and lack conviction, obsessed with their own shallowly established desires. When so much is wrong with the world, saving one child’s life or pulling off a political coup feels petty. But the characters can’t see the world as a whole, which is essentially their downfall, and as its scope becomes bigger, Elysium soars, becoming a powerful story of human survival, class divides, wealth disparity and asylum.  Though set in 2154, this is a story about here and now. It’s about class divides everywhere and invokes a number of applicable metaphors. I was reminded of Australia’s asylum seeker policy; of desperate people being exploited by people smugglers and drowning in the great divide of space before reaching paradise. Blomkamp refers to Mexicans in Juarez gazing toward the US border. The divide between rich and poor is a universal struggle and Blomkamp makes it relevant to audiences everywhere.Being his follow-up to his debut triumph District 9, Elysium is something of a companion piece rather than a bold new venture. It extrapolates on similar themes of asylum, racism and segregation, but takes it out of the city of Johannesburg and applies it to the entire planet. Blomkamp said Elysium “could be made just about Jo-burg”, but instead, is immensely large in scope and scale. Elysium is the big-budget upgrade of District 9. It comes blazing with big stars, big effects and Hollywood gravitas. And though none of those accouterments were necessary to create a smart, poignant and action-packed romp in District 9, Elysium does benefit in ways from cash-fuelled spectacle.The action sequences are masterful. The film buzzes with suspenseful energy, escalating to levels of awesome artfulness. Woven with tense chases, rollicking action and slick set pieces, the film races breathlessly to the climax, without mishandling the message. The choreography sings against the serene production design. The visuals come together in a strange harmony. From the dirty, graffiti-ridden, arid desert of Earth to the pristine thriving paradise of Elysium, every action sequence perfectly aligns with the look of the film.Fiercely independent and meaningful at its heart, Elysium bears the Hollywood action mantle with the same conviction as Max’s bionic exoskeleton: it is a means to an end. The big spectacle helps this film stand next to the tent pole releases of the year, while maintaining its conviction. Blomkamp did compromise, it’s true (he hired A-list Hollywood stars at the behest of his financiers), but the result is still brilliantly true to his wit and directorial style. The two-for-two of Elysium and District 9 proves that Blomkamp is a skillful genre director. He uses his experience with contrasting wealth and poverty and his insatiable curiosity about the world to create intelligent, challenging and relevant sci-fi that is still one hell of a Nat Tencic

September 1st 2013
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