Neill Blomkamp burst into Hollywood with his groundbreaking South African sci-fi drama District 9. This is his big budget Hollywood follow-up and the result is not as impressive as I hoped.
In the year 2154, Earth has become polluted and overpopulated. The rich and privileged have built a paradise on a space station called Elysium, where advanced technology helps keep them healthy and safe. Back on Earth, ex-convict Max (Matt Damon) has been working nonstop to save up for his trip to Elysium. That has been his dream since childhood, and he is determined to go there. An incident at work exposes Max to a high dosage of radiation, and he has only about five days to live.
Max needs to go to Elysium now so he can get healed, but he doesn't have enough to buy a black market ticket. So he volunteers to do a job for an underground op Spider (Wagner Moura), who wants to kidnap an Elysium citizen (William Fitchner) and download secrets from his brain. Spider outfits Max with a body army and a team to carry out the mission, but something goes wrong with Elysium Security Officer Delacourt (Jodie Foster) sends a mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down.
When Max gets seriously injured, he seeks help from his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga) who is now a nurse. Alice needs to take her daughter to Elysium, too, as she has late stage Leukemia. Max promises Frey to take them there. Once they get there, Max realizes his mission is bigger than he thought, and he must decide what to do.
Matt Damon (Behind the Candelabra) is no stranger to playing down-and-out action heroes, as he did in the Bourne series. Here, Damon achieves a new level of grunge and toughness, further establishing him as one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. Granted, this is not one of the best-developed characters that Damon has played, but he's done his best bringing the humanity to the role. Jodie Foster (Carnage) has surprisingly limited screen time playing a corporate snake as Delacourt, but her role is two one-dimensional to make any real impression. Her arc also doesn't seem fully developed, and that leaves me wanting more.
Sharlto Copley (District 9) teams up with Blomkamp again and plays a very different character this time: a mad man who is out for blood. Copley has the movie's most flamboyant and outrageous character and he gives it his all. Alice Braga (On the Road) is beautiful and sweet as Frey but she, too, has very limited scope to play her character.
The supporting cast includes Wagner Moura (Father's Chair) with an over-the-top performance as Spider; William Fitchner (The Lone Ranger) doing his best as a dispassionate Elysium billionaire, and Diego Luna (Contraband) in a gentle turn as Max's friend Julio.
Blomkamp's screenplay has some neat new concepts and builds on his usual social commentary about the rich vs. the poor. The high concept ideas sound great on paper, but seem to get lost in the execution as it is more complicated than what the story requires. The plot turns out to be a more standard "man saves the world" one with a lot of Hollywood action and violence, but not enough suspense and mystery. Also, I feel that the character development and arc are not up to par with what Blomkamp has done before. What made District 9 so good was not only the structure, social commentary and the wicked ending, but also how the character develops throughout the story. I feel that is what is significantly lacking in this one.
The direction is adequate. It has all the standard Hollywood action adventure, sci-fi trimmings. Special effects are great. The world that Blomkamp has built is similar to that in District 9 and it works. The design and rendering of Elysium is also astounding. Production value is pretty good. The action violence can be over the top at times, with lots of exploding body parts and gore. I think they are necessary, to have a point, if only the story is stronger.
I think Elysium is a decent attempt as a follow-up for Blomkamp, but can't help but feel rather disappointed by the writing and execution. I don't mean that he has sold out to Hollywood, but it seems that he's more interested in the entertainment value here than what he has to say.
Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fitchner, Wagner Moura. Diego Luna Director: Neill Blomkamp Writer: Neill Blomkamp Distributor: Sony MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language Running Time: 109 minutes