Neill Blonkamp's first movie, District 9, was a sardonic, gut-punching masterpiece. His new movie, Elysium, is just a crazy over-the-top action movie. There's none of the depth or complexity of District 9, but there are cyborgs punching each each other in space. And that's awesome.
Seriously, Elysium is a mindless action movie where nothing makes any sense, and if you stop to think about the plot for a second you'll start having a brain hemorrhage. But it's a really good mindless action movie. The action is absolutely top-drawer, and Blomkamp proves yet again that he is brilliant at filming mayhem. This is only the second movie this summer, after Man of Steel, to feature human-sized action scenes that left a lasting impression.
Fucking robots, man.
In Elysium, it's 140-odd years from now, and shit has gotten dystopian. The rich have gone to live in an orbital paradise called Elysium, while everyone else lives on the over-populated, miserable Earth. Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to go straight, who works in a robot factory — until he gets irradiated in a work accident. Max has just five days to live, unless he can get up to Elysium and use one of their miraculous medical beds to save himself.
So Max is basically your garden-variety underdog, and the film spends a lot of time showing how the system keeps him down — early on, he gets hassled by the robot cops, and then mistreated by his robot parole officer. Max's fatal accident happens because his supervisor at work is callous, and then the evil CEO of his company basically throws him away like garbage.
In order to get up to Elysium and save himself, Max will have to rejoin his former criminal pals, who bolt a really nasty exo-suit to his body and turn him into a superstrong fighting machine. And he signs on for a wacky heist, which goes about as well as heists ever do in movies.
And after that, the movie swings into high gear and basically never slows down again. Through a series of wacky coincidences, Max winds up getting hold of a big secret that could change everything, and everybody is trying get the secret from him.
Jason Statham must be pissed.
Basically, Elysium is a Jason Statham movie. Matt Damon is playing the same character Statham plays in, say, the Death Race remake. The sort of salt-of-the-Earth underdog, who's been fucked with by the man. In fact, nothing about this movie's plot or general storytelling toolkit is that different from Statham's ouevre. (Which I like.)
But because this film stars Matt Damon, it feels like kind of a different creature, for various reasons. Damon brings a certain amount of charisma, but also a warmth and a "relatable" quality. When you see Matt Damon being beaten up by robot cops for no good reason, you automatically want to root for him.
Damon puts enough conviction and energy into the character of Max that you feel invested in his problems. When Damon gets exoskeletonized and starts getting in over his head, his tough-guy act has a sort of lovable vulnerability.
To the extent that there's character development in the film, it involves Damon growing and becoming more selfless — and although he's not given that much to work with, he really sells it. He has one scene in particular, with a sick little girl, where he's being a little bit callous and selfish, and he manages to make it funny as well as sad.
Matt Damon really does carry this film, pretty much single-handed. He's one of the two main reasons Elysium is a cut above a movie like, say, Lockout.
The other thing that elevates Elysium above Lockout or Death Race is the visuals — in addition to the aforementioned beautiful action scenes, there are some incredible views. The shots of the orbital habitat floating over the Earth, and some of the spaceship porn, is just mindblowingly lovely. The technology in the film all feels completely real and plausible, especially the robots and spaceships, and Blomkamp proves yet again that he's amazingly deft at showing futuristic and alien things in a gritty, matter-of-fact, believable fashion — the deftness of Blomkamp's direction does a lot to keep Damon's character grounded.
And yet this movie resists the temptation to slow down so you can admire all the money they spent on this beautiful space station and these cool effects. It doesn't bog down in its eye-candy, like so many other films. It just throws amazing imagery and action at you, and keeps going at a breakneck pace.
Which is good, considering how silly this film is. To wit...
Jodie Foster plays Madonna playing Margaret Thatcher
That's the best way I can think of describing what Jodie is doing in this film. She has a weird fake accent — maybe it's supposed to be French, but it sounded fake-British to me — and she's doing a weird pastiche of the Iron Lady. She smirks a lot and chews the heck out of her cartoony dialogue about the necessity of keeping the poor people in their place. She can't speak a line of dialogue without purring or snarling.
In a movie where Matt Damon is doing his best to be down-to-earth while running around in a big metal exosuit and jumping out of spaceships, it's even weirder how over-the-top Jodie Foster gets with her role.
And because Foster has the job of carrying the film's "political" story about evil rich people wanting to keep the poor out of the ultimate gated community, the fact that she's doing this weird Cruella de Ville thing just ensures you won't take the film's political message all that seriously. Which is fine, since it's just an excuse to blow shit up.
Foster is the Secretary of Defense for Elysium, and in one of the movie's more random subplots, the lily-livered politicians who run the place don't approve of her doing what she has to do to keep the riff-raff out. So she's forced to enlist the aid of her henchman, Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to do all her dirty work.
We're told Kruger is a rapist and a general baby-killing mass murderer. Plus we see him barbecuing like ten chickens on his rooftop in the slums, while all the starving people people below cry out for food and he throws empty beer bottles at them, laughing. Oh, and he has a rocket launcher as big as his entire body, which he can use to shoot down spaceships.
In other words, Sharlto Copley is cartoony in a different way than Jodie Foster, and he has the time of his life playing the most cartoon villain he possibly can. You can basically see Copley going nuts coming up with silly one-liners and goofy ad-libs, to make this psychopath as wacky as possible.
Crazy fist-pumping fun
So yeah, Elysium is kind of silly, and Copley seems to be in on the joke in a way that maybe Foster isn't quite. The plot, which I won't spoil here, is completely ridonkulous, and the resolution may have you slapping your forehead a bit. Well, a lot.
But when you're not laughing at how goofy this film is, you'll be cheering for the madcap action scenes of Matt Damon fighting robots and stuff. The real fantasy at the core of Elysium isn't about the haves and the have-nots — it's about the thrill of having supergrungy power armor stuck on your body so you can punch way outside your weight class.
Elysium is a fast-paced, sweaty, fist-pumping good time. It's the kind of action movie we don't see often enough nowadays: one in which an underdog fights against impossible odds and cartoony baddies, and there aren't "action sequences" so much as an ongoing condition of everything breaking loose in all directions. I was pretty much whooping with joy for the last 45 minutes of this film.
When I walked out of the theater after seeing District 9 for the first time, I was so destroyed I could barely talk for an hour afterwards. I had a lot to say about District 9 but I was too wrung out to begin to verbalize any of it. I went out for drinks with some friends afterwards, and we all just sat there in silence, drinking whiskey and processing what we had seen.
By contrast, I walked out of Elysium kind of giggling. Both at how much fun the robot-cyborg smackdowns were, and at how nonsensical the whole thing was.
So definitely don't go into Elysium expecting District 10 or anything. This film isn't in the same league as Blomkamp's debut, in all sorts of ways. But what you get instead is a fun ride, with just enough inventiveness in the set-up to make all the splodey action really satisfying.