Neil Blomkamp has not forgotten Halo; his doomed project to bring the successful videogame science fiction series to the big screen, under the guiding hand of Peter Jackson, looms large in some of the imagery of his new feature Elysium. The great titular space station which hangs in the sky above Blompamp’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. That it is such an informed design is in opposition to the achievement Blompamp 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 that film, with the technology presented in very similar ways and even another major role for the actor of District 9’s protagonist Sharlto Copley.
In this, his sophomore effort, Blompkamp takes a wider view, and a plot that is larger in scope though not more complex, although many of the themes recur. We follow Max, an earth-dwelling working class man played with extreme competence by Matt Damon, and learn of his and many others’ lifelong dream to escape the poverty-ridden and overpopulated 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 get up to the station at all costs 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 in a somewhat disconcerting way by Jodie Foster.
Elysium’s major strengths lie in its action and its characters’ 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 the wall-cutting tool used to enter a downed ship at one point. This attitude, to not focus too much on the advances in technology, builds the believability very 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. Meanwhile, 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 played by Alice Braga has similarly self-interested reasons for wanting to accompany him. Kruger’s improvised strategies as he realises the power he stands to gain are believable as well. It is a pity that the actions of these realistically self-centred characters are fairly frequently let down by slightly clumsy dialogue and writing.
Where Elysium seriously falls down is in the very final act, when its 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, what with the healthcare and racial boundaries, 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 excellent ambiguity and open-endedness of District 9 – and all the comparisons between the films are unavoidable.
Elysium is a visually lush and at times stunning film. That the ending seriously brings down the film is an illustration of the high quality of parts of its main body. Blomkamp has not outdone District 9, if he was ever likely to manage that, but he has still produced an enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing science fiction film.