VOD film review: Elysium
Pure unadulterated carnage8
Simon Kinnear | On 10, Jan 2014Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster
Watch Elysium online in the UK: Amazon Prime / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Sky Store / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Renowned Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu famously compared himself to a tofu maker, believing that he served much the same dish every time he made a new film. And chin-wagging scholars of auteur theory certainly prize that kind of consistency in theme and visuals from elite art-house directors like Ozu. So why the grudging praise for Neill Blomkamp for effectively remaking his debut, District 9, with his follow-up, Elysium?
This is a deeper, richer elaboration of the earlier film, built on a much bigger canvas but defined by the same socio-political concerns and oil-and-metal industrial aesthetic. It is tofu-flavoured popcorn.
The differences are minimal. Where District 9 dealt with racial apartheid, this deals with economic apartheid, pushing the current global recession to a satirical extreme by having the elite literally live in their own world – the ultra-plush space station of the title – while harking back to silent classic Metropolis. Yet in both films, a flawed Everyman suffers an accident that forces him to confront his own apathy and initiate events that change the social paradigm, pursued by an implacable Afrikaans mercenary.
So why is Elysium a better film? It is blunt in its politics (seemingly, nobody on Elysium gives two hoots about what’s going on down on Earth) but at least it is consistent. Don’t forget that District 9 undid its anti-racist parable by making the Nigerian characters into crassly stereotyped villains. And while Elysium lacks the self-conscious ‘found footage’ elements that gave District 9 its visual flavour, Blomkamp’s most classical approach here allows for more immersive world-building.
The first half hour is devoted to mapping out Max’s (Damon) limited horizons, before switching focus to show a devastating, failed attempt by desperate refugees to break into Elysium. It’s a lengthy sequence that recalls the best of recent dystopian sci-fi from Children Of Men to the reboot of Battleship Galactica, while its searing Marxist credentials are proof that Blomkamp hasn’t sold out in taking Hollywood dollar.
So when the plot kicks in, there are real stakes. True, it hinges on an unlikely coincidence involving William Fichtner’s haughty billionaire – a heist target for Damon, a crooked partner-in-crime for crooked politician Jodie Foster – but it gives Blomkamp the chance to align his worlds. A path has been forged between Earth and Elysium, and between protest movie and blockbuster; the rest of the film can get on with the chase.
And it is here that Blomkamp expands, and improves upon, what made District 9’s action so formidable: his grasp of hardware. Everything in this film looks built rather than computer-generated, with a vast array of ships, robots and weapons; nor is Blomkamp shy about showing their effects. Not since Paul Verhoeven’s heyday has mainstream sci-fi shown so many bodies and faces being blown apart.
Matt Damon anchors the film with a quietly sympathetic performance that is Bourne-like in determination, but with a blue-collar simplicity that few A-listers could pull off; he’s just as convincing in the early scenes of factory work as he is busting robot heads.
Foster, with a curious Franco-American accent, overdoes the privileged villain a bit, but back on Earth Blomkamp opts for multi-national casting, from the best of South America (Diego Luna, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura) to District 9’s Sharlto Copley, who is magnetic as vile South African Kruger, a mercenary who treats mankind as sport. The characters are archetypes and, by Ozu standards, thinly drawn… but Elysium is not only a blockbuster but a political fable, and whether your yardstick is Michael Bay or Sergei Eisenstein, it works as both.
Elysium is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.