Neill Blomkamp is not what you’d call subtle director. His first film, the unexpectedly Oscar-nominated District 9 – for Best Picture, no less – was a thin parable about South African apartheid with an indoctrinated pencil-pushing bureaucrat learning the dangers of racism and dehumanization (the fact that the aliens weren’t exactly “human” was clearly no excuse). But the film had such a jagged edge to its visual style and such fascinatingly cynical themes that it overcame all of that narrative simplicity. Besides, the multiplayer co-op action sequences were really cool.
So it should come as no surprise that Blomkamp’s second feature, Elysium, brings with it another blunt, socially conscious message about economic and cultural disparity. If you have any strong opinions about “The 1%,” universal health care and/or immigration reform you’ll probably feel either vindicated or vilified by Blomkamp’s portrayal of a future in which the rich and powerful live on a space station with technology that heals any wound instantly and look down on a whole planet full of the working poor who are mistreated, manhandled and permitted to die from treatable diseases just because they haven’t persevered in an economic system with no apparent means of upward mobility.
And just in case you didn’t get it, the inhabitants of Elysium – spearheaded by a cartoonishly evil Jodie Foster – tend to kill anyone who attempts to break into their atmosphere and steal a few seconds of magic medicine fun time to heal their crippled children. The design of Elysium itself, though beautiful, allows pretty much any ship to crash land into suburban neighborhoods, scaring the rich white folks who live in blissful unawareness (or consenting apathy) of the Orwellian horrors on the Earth below. Is it a design flaw? Possibly, or possibly it’s necessary to allow sunlight into the space station in order to keep the grounds idyllically green… or, possibly, the image of illegal immigrants breaking into the upper class's very backyards was just too delicious for writer/director Blomkamp to resist.
These head-bludgeoning metaphors for real-world problems can be distracting in Elysium, but they can’t entirely detract from the thrilling and imaginative sci-fi action thriller to which Blomkamp offers equal time. The film takes place 150 years in the future, where an ex-con played by Matt Damon tries to reform and work in a dangerous factory, but when he’s exposed to deadly radiation he decides to stop at nothing to break into Elysium to access their spectacular, atom-reorganizing medical facilities. To do this he’ll need to don an exo-skeleton that gives him superhuman strength, steal valuable Elysium secrets from a rich, apathetic douchebag played by William Fichtner, and evade a psychopathic mercenary played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley, assigned to retrieve the information by the corrupt Jodie Foster.
Blomkamp’s plot seems contrived, but it’s been contrived with the express purpose to illustrate every facet of Elysium’s future without making it feel like a digression. Moreover, no matter how convenient some of the film's plot points may be, they all exude a thick residue of desperation that coats Blomkamp’s lived-in landscapes. Our hero is indeed thoroughly screwed throughout Elysium. He is a ticking clock of fatalism, raging against an entire social system designed to kill him in one way or another. His path to Elysium itself isn’t just a difficult one, it’s as impossible as Blomkamp can possibly make it, turning even the slightest victory into a massive accomplishment. Elysium’s plot may feel less than organic, but it's always exhilarating.
And if exhilaration can come part and parcel with a storyline that actually means something, even if it is overtly topical, then more power to Elysium, a film that uses expensive visual effects and outlandish (albeit sometimes choppily edited) action sequences to tell a story that feels like the result of a human being’s imagination, not a checklist of marketable requirements composed by soulless executives. Elysium elicits the same kind of brutal, mature thrills we used to find in sci-fi classics like Aliens and RoboCop, and while it might not reach those films’ exalted levels… only time will tell for sure.
Neill Blomkamp’s second feature has the passion we’re used to in highly personal independent films, writ large on a sprawling canvas with just enough formulaic convention to make the story palpable to mainstream audiences. If distilling a film’s ambitious concept into an accessible package is the price we pay for this kind cinematic chutzpah, then it’s a damned good bargain. And to think, your ticket to Elysium costs less than a billion dollars. The hero of the film would be jealous.