Back in 2009, a little-known dystopian movie called "District 9" hit theaters. With its seamless mixture of apartheid metaphors and sci-fi sizzle, director Neill Blomkamp's debut film turned into a surprise box office juggernaut. The movie would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Blomkamp's long-awaited second feature, "Elysium," hits theaters this weekend. The movie stars Matt Damon as a desperate inhabitant on a financially defunct earth. As for the planet's richest and most powerful inhabitants, they live on Elysium, an idyllic community housed on an orbiting space station 19 minutes outside of earth's atmosphere. It's a society free of crime, pollution, and disease, and those stuck on earth are desperate to get in.
There's intense pressure on Blomkamp to follow up "District 9" with a movie just as innovative, surprising, and fun as his first film. So has he done it? Or has he fallen into the sci-fi sophomore slump? Read on to find out.
1. It's Not Very Subtle
The first thing you should know about "Elysium" is that it's an incredibly political science-fiction film, one in which immigration, health care reform, the "occupy" movement, and our behavior in the Middle East is addressed head on. It makes the obtuse 99 percent fable "In Time," where dollars were replaced by seconds of the day, seem like a subtle work of speculative fiction. "Elysium" isn't as overt with its political messaging. However, it is certainly presen.
2. It's Very Violent
Remember the gun from "District 9" that turned unsuspecting humans into chunky red soup? Well, Blomkamp's thirst for blood has, thankfully, remained, making "Elysium" one of the more proudly R-rated endeavors of the summer. Overall, the movie is consistently bloody. Our only complaint: one moment that seems ripe for uncomfortable squishiness gets cut way too short. At one point Damon's Max is desperate to leave Earth but can't physically do it, so he gets outfitted with a metallic exoskeleton. The guys who are putting the suit on him say stuff like "Oh man this is going to maybe kill you" (paraphrasing here), but thanks to choppy editing, you wonder if it was really that bad to begin with.
3. Matt Damon Is Great
Damon plays Max, an orphan living in a Los Angeles that looks more like a bombed-out Mexico City (where the movie was shot). Damon's character work is deft; Max goes from being a selfish jerk to a quasi-savior of planet earth, and Damon works that evolution with grace and measure. Unfortunately, his relationship with Frey (Alice Braga) is less developed and feels more perfunctory.
4. Jodie Foster Is Not So Great
For some reason, Foster, as a chilly security chief on Elysium, is borderline awful. She's supposed to be French but she uses an accent that you can't quite place (neither can she), and her motives seem both hopelessly complicated and awfully straightforward. She clicks around the space station in high heels, marching around doing terrible things, with dialogue delivered in such a brittle way that you wonder if there's going to be a third act twist where it's revealed that she is a robot. Foster has always managed to pump some heart and wit into even the most thankless role, but here she does nothing.
5. The Visual Effects Are Beyond Impressive
The effects combine to produce something that seems wholly real; the robots that interact with Damon have an eerie lifelike quality, and Elysium is so well visualized that you can practically smell the freshly cut artificial grass. While it's full of space ships and robots and planetoids, it never seems to be on a campaign of shock and awe. The effects are subtle, which makes them even more impressive.
6. The Film Suffers From Third Act Dementia
"Elysium" goes absolutely bonkers in its last act. And while it's not entirely clear whether or not the madness works, it's certainly something that you kind of have to respect, out of sheer ballsiness. (Blomkamp is an admitted Michael Bay aficionado, and it really shows.) It is nice, however, that a movie as singularly bleak as "Elysium" at least concludes with some optimistic uplift.
7. Shartlo Copley Is Insane
Copley plays Kruger, a terrifying agent who works for Jodie Foster. His body seems to be outfitted with electronic nodes that serve as slots so that he can stick machines in them. His grizzled South African accident has become an even more garbled growl here, and he has grown a homeless guy beard, which makes him uncomfortably menacing. Toward the end of the film, the character takes an even more deliciously bizarre turn, and while Kuruger sometimes seems part of an entirely different narrative than the more restrained Damon and icy Foster, you can't help but love to hate him (and hate to love him).
8. William Fichtner Is Back for Villainous Seconds
William Fichtner played the villainous Butch Cavendish in the under-seen western "Lone Ranger," and now he's back once again as the bad guy, the smarmy head of the robot company, who Damon utilizes to get into Elysium. While in "The Lone Ranger" Fichtner played a murderous, cannibalistic thug, here he plays a greasy one percenter. However, they're about equal on the villain scale, both brought to life beautifully by Fichtner, one of the very best character actors working today.
9. The Plot Is Needlessly Convoluted, and the Editing Doesn't Help
Explaining the plot of "Elysium" would both ruin some of the kicky pleasure that comes from watching it and probably just confuse you. Needless to say it's unnecessarily convoluted, to the point that in any given sequence about 15 things are happening at the same time. Someone like Christopher Nolan can juggle this kind of thing in "Inception" because he's had practice with his other twisty thrillers, but Blomkamp just jumps right in. It doesn't help that the editing of "Elysium" is sometimes downright atrocious, with flabbergasting choices made in almost every scene. Each shot could have been longer by whole seconds, too. The choppiness is definitely a letdown.
10. For Dumb Sci-Fi Fun, "Pacific Rim" Is Still Better
Coming out of "Elysium," it was hard not to think about "Pacific Rim," another fanboy favorite from this summer that featured extensive special effects and stellar robots. But ultimately, "Pacific Rim" is the better dumb sci-fi movie of the two. There are a lot of things in "Elysium" that remain a confusing muddle, whereas the world of "Pacific Rim" is laid out perfectly. There are also fewer moments of genuine wonder in "Elysium." If I had the choice between dying on a smog-choked "Elysium" future or inside a jaeger, I'd choose the jaeger.