In an early promotional interview for Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp made two declarations of note. First, he stated that his newest film, which plainly and explicitly depicts a world that separates the haves and have-nots in a story that hinges on an uprising over universal health care, was not political. Second, he proclaimed affection for Michael Bay’s filmmaking talent. Both statements seem to jibe with the notion that this Blomkamp guy is either a smug cinematic fascist or transparent liar. However, on the basis of the film itself, both statements make sense. Elysium is overtly pedestrian in its politics, which is actually a positive for its explosive action, which resembles the brash extremity of Bay’s, but with more guts and less navel-gazing.
Put simply, Elysium is the best straight action epic of 2013 thus far — not merely the tentpole-laden summer season, but the year at large. This despite the fact that its political undercurrent is simple to the point of being obvious and it’s futuristic mythology has some glaring black holes. Yes, the film is flawed and somewhat messy, but greatness isn’t always neat and tidy. What Blomkamp expresses in this, his second feature, is a passion for the visceral excitement that film can spark, a desire to fuse the many varied filmic emotions — fear, sadness, joy, warmth, terror, awe — into an orgiastic synthesis.
Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, was a surprise Best Picture nominee in 2010 precisely because it accomplished that emotional synthesis for many audiences. Elysium, however, is a superior piece of cinema because it appears Blomkamp looked at the divergent styles of his Oscar-nominated film and chose to follow the best of them. For all its strengths, District 9 was an odd amalgam of indie faux-documentary and brazen, studio-juiced sci-fi actioner. While the mock-doc motif felt stale, the action was revelatory. With Elysium, Blomkamp transitions into full-tilt action mode, abandoning all pretense and delivering full-force action that is stunning and spellbinding from start to finish.
In spite of his expressed non-political intentions, Blomkamp seems innately drawn to stories with modern social resonance. The strands are obvious — sometimes over-the-top — in the future depicted in Elysium, where the wealthiest sector of Earth’s population (dare I say, the 1%?) reside on the titular space station, a relative utopia where the air is free of pollution and diseases can be cured in a matter of seconds. The rest — the 99% — remain on Earth, which is a veritable wasteland of poverty and disease. Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict who now works in a factory, building droids that function under Elysian rule to suppress all of Earth’s citizens. As a child, Max had dreams of living on Elysium, but is now content to mind his own business and survive the elements of the planet he grew up on.
Survival becomes elusive, however, when Max is exposed to radiation in the factory and his health becomes dire. Now Elysium isn’t just a dream, it’s a necessity. Max concocts a plan to gain access to a black-market flight to the highly-guarded orbital space station, but there are, naturally, opposing forces. Jodie Foster is the Elysian Defense Secretary hell-bent on stopping any intruders. Blomkamp favorite Sharlto Copley is the rogue mercenary sent to intercept Max before he enters Elysian atmosphere. As these characters’ disparate plights converge, nothing goes as planned. Part of the delight of Blomkamp’s original screenplay is the way he complicates the physical and emotional journey without bogging down the story. All of the pieces are set in place and their goals are laid out with clarity.
The same can’t quite be said of the film’s more extreme sci-fi elements, which involve mechanical exoskeletons and futuristic weaponry, which, depending on the need of the plot, can either fail miserably or work heroically. In the same way, such a simplistic political subtext denies certain characters — namely Foster’s — more intriguing complexity. But in a film so acutely focused on emotions of the heart, it’s not surprising that its head isn’t quite screwed on straight. Elysium is a film of great passion for the lost cinematic art of epic thrills. Many attempt it, but Blomkamp succeeds. Elysium taps squarely into our desire to be transported to a vivid new world, staggered by what we see and riveted by what we feel.