Writer/director Neil Blomkamp is not big on subtlety. The South African sci-fi auteur explodes bodies and trumpets social commentary with equal bravado.
He burst onto the scene in a big way in 2009 with “District 9,” an apartheid allegory that featured flawless special effects, top-shelf action, and a smart script.
With a humble budget (by Hollywood standards) he delivered a movie that visually matched the average over-bloated summer blockbuster and intellectually blew them away.
Now he’s back with only his second feature, “Elysium,” where his budget has tripled, his cast has gone from unknown to A-list and the results, while not as impressive as “District 9,” prove Blomkamp is a talented director with a vision and a purpose.
The year is 2154 and Matt Damon stars as Max, a blue-collar ex-con who works in a droid factory in a dirty, polluted, slum-filled Los Angeles.
In fact, most of the planet has fallen into this state, so the rich and powerful have constructed a massive luxury space station, complete with palatial estates, called Elysium. Think of it like an orbiting Beverly Hills.
There the wealthy inhabitants live blissfully above the squalor in perfect health thanks to Miracle Beds in every home that cure any ailment from a skinned knee to leukemia to massive trauma in a matter of seconds.
As you would imagine, those left on Earth are desperate to get to Elysium and the task of protecting the zero-gravity border falls to Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, employing a clunky French accent).
Her tactics trend on the ruthless side as she often uses lethal force to keep the unwashed masses at bay with the help of an unbalanced mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley, star of “District 9” and longtime Blomkamp friend).
One day while working the assembly line, Max is blasted with a lethal dose of radiation. Given only a few days to live and his only hope being an Elysium Miracle Bed, Max turns to a crime lord and resistance leader Spider (Wagner Moura) for help.
Spider gives Max a mission of kidnapping an Elysium resident on a business trip to Earth, then mentally downloading vital information from his brain that would allow access to Elysium.
Max takes the job and is surgically fitted with a super-cool, battle-ready exoskeleton. This is when the action-packed quest for Elysium kicks into a higher gear.
You don’t have to be a social policy expert to need more than a minute-and-a-half to figure out that “Elysium” is commenting on the U.S. immigration debate. But more than that, this movie is a sharp criticism of all first-world nations and their indifference to the plight of the rest of the world’s citizens.
Sadly it’s an easy claim to make when you consider that the yachts parked off of Miami are only a few hundred miles away from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
By wrapping his message in a sci-fi action-adventure Blomkamp makes the medicine go down easier and softens his heavy hand.
It also doesn’t hurt that Blomkamp is on the cutting edge of special effects in movies. His practical implementation of computer-generated images just feels — for lack of a better term — real. From the droids that patrol the surface to the slummed-out high-rises of L.A. to the orbiting majesty of Elysium, Blomkamp makes his movie look like he just showed up, turned on the camera, and yelled “Action.”
There are some problems with “Elysium,” like the total lack of nuance or the failure of some of the film’s finer details to hold up to much scrutiny, but really this is just picking nits.
What I find most exciting is that this is only Blomkamp’s second feature and he’s already staked out the promising territory of movies that look really cool and simultaneously take on challenging subject matter. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
“Elysium” is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.