Usually going into a movie with sky-high expectations is a recipe for disaster. With that in mind, most sci-fi fans should’ve been worried about Elysium. After all, Neill Blomkamp’s debut, District 9, was one of very few sci-fi films ever to be nominated for Best Picture, and it definitely deserved the accolades it received. So the thought of Blomkamp working with triple the budget, keeping his South African star Sharlto Copley, and adding big name actors like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, should have been enough to get anyone, sci-fi nerd or not, giddy with excitement.
So there’s no way Elysium could possibly live up to the expectations set for it, right? Wrong. Blomkamp not only creates a film worthy of the hype, but he surpasses his debut in almost every way.
What propels Elysium is without a question its story. It’s filled with compelling characters that it’s impossible not to care about, and they’re sent on one of the most epic, thrilling journeys possible. Matt Damon’s Max is a flawed, yet good character, and seeing his desperation to save his own life, and the arc that his character goes on, would be enough of a story for any movie, even without the epic visual effects and sci-fi awesomeness that is present.
We meet Max, a former car-jacker who’s trying to get his life turned around. He has a steady job, but keeps running into trouble due to his criminal history. One day at work, he’s trapped inside a radiation-filled room, and is exposed to a lethal dose. He only has five days left to live, and he’s desperate. He knows that his life can be saved on Elysium, so he goes to a criminal kingpin, Spider, who provides a mechanical exoskeleton so Max can download bank codes and other data from a wealthy man’s brain. Once done, then Max has a free ticket to the space station in the sky. When the data is downloaded to Max’s brain, he finds out the man who was picked had more than expected in his brain, he now Max has the codes that can reset Elysium. This means tons of people, from Elysium and Earth, are after Max to get the most valuable data in the Solar System.
Damon shows yet again he’s one of the premier action stars alive. Granted, it’s been over a decade since he was cast as Jason Bourne, causing action/thriller fans everywhere to question his ability to lead the genre (those same people later had horrible indigestion from how fast they ate their words.) Now, well into his 40s, Damon continues to show how great he is in the genre. The fight scenes are all spot-on, as he portrays pain, agony, and suffering, all while never seeming anything other than believable as the boy who grew up in the slums spending every day dreaming of something better.
The opening scene alone is stunning. With visual effects that are almost unrivaled in cinema, Blomkamp pans over the dystopic world he’s created, giving a quick history of the past 100+ years, and showing the wasteland Earth has become. Even though you know you’re watching a movie, it’s shocking to see the decrepit high rises and fields of trash that cover the planet, but then again, Blomkamp isn’t one to avoid shocks.
From a story perspective, it’s awesome to see how easily Blomkamp shows us just how bad the bad guys are. There’s a scene toward the start of the film where three ships, filled with sick children and their parents, take off from Earth headed for Elysium. Senator Delacourt doesn’t show a moment of hesitation or remorse before commanding the ships be shot down out of the sky. She ignores the qualms of those beneath her, and then, showing the bad guys sometimes do win, two of the ships are blown to smithereens, with all the innocent, crippled children inside.
Blomkamp’s political message isn’t hidden at all. He’s saying the resources available to the elite should be available to everyone. He makes no effort to subtly weave this into the plot, but rather makes it one of the focal points of the film. Usually, that would turn me off to a movie. I’m all for a filmmaker having something to say, but when a grating political message is pushed to the forefront, it usually detracts from the quality of the actual story. That is not at all the case with Elysium. Blomkamp so deftly weaves his message into the story that it doesn’t take anything away from the excellent story, and that’s another thing (on the list of many) the film should be commended for.
It’s hard for me to find glaring flaws with Elysium. The story is tight, the acting is spot-on, and the visual effects are out of this world. In a year of lackluster sci-fi, Elysium serves as a reminder of why I love the genre more than any other.