Neill Blomkamp has not forgotten his doomed project to bring successful sci-fi videogame series Halo to the big screen, under the guiding hand of Peter Jackson; Halo-esque imagery looms large in Blomkamp’s new feature Elysium. The great titular space station which hangs in the sky above Blomkamp’s vision of a 22nd Century Earth draws comparisons not just to the Halos of the Microsoft games, but also to space stations from science fiction literature and film from many eras. This informed design is in opposition to the achievement Blomkamp manages in this and his previous film, District 9, in manufacturing a uniquely believable and grimy future world. In many ways Elysium is a continuation of District 9, with the technology presented in similar ways.
In his sophomore effort Blompkamp takes a wider view, with a plot that is larger in scope but not more complex, and many of District 9’s themes recur. We follow Max, a working class Earth-dweller played with extreme competence by Matt Damon, and learn of his lifelong dream to escape the overpopulated poverty-ridden megacities of Earth, to the orbiting space-station Elysium.
This idyllic retreat is strictly for the elite, with free universal and perfect healthcare only accessible by confirmed citizens. When a workplace accident plunges Max into life-threatening illness, he resolves to make it to the station to access the healing bays and get his life back. Along the way he spars with Sharlto Copley’s menacing agent Kruger, under the control of the nefarious defence secretary of Elysium, played by a disconcerting Jodie Foster.
Elysium’s major strengths lie in action and character interactions. The grungy, sadistic weaponry of District 9 returns in force, with exploding bullets and railguns, as well as interesting technology used briefly and without exposition, such as a wall-cutting tool used to enter a downed ship. This attitude, not focussing too much on the advances in technology, builds realism effectively. The merging of old wheeled vehicles in a world with sleek and fast ships is logical, and a simple visual distinction between rich and poor.
The various characters are believably selfish in the same way as Wikus was in District 9; Max is pursuing passage to Elysium for his own ends, and his childhood flame (Alice Braga) has similarly self-interested reasons for wanting to accompany him. It is a pity that the actions of these realistically self-centred characters are frequently let down by clumsy dialogue and writing.
Elysium seriously falls down in its final act, when the story lurches towards an overly predictable ending and then problematically casts a quick gaze, in montage form, over the effects of this conclusion on Earth and its interaction with Elysium. It is simplistic in the extreme, and while it works in the confines of the fairly obvious metaphor for illegal immigration to the US (or elsewhere), when applied to the actual world Blomkamp has built it is patently unworkable and improbable. This Hollywood ending is frustrating and reductive, especially when compared to the excellent ambiguity and open-endedness of District 9.
Elysium is visually lush, and at times a stunning film. Blomkamp has not outdone District 9, if he was ever likely to manage that, but he has produced an enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing science fiction film.