Showing just how redundant things have gotten in Hollywood of late, Elysium, director Neil Blomkamp's lavishly expansive yet lovingly personal sci-fi opus, is actually the third flick this year depicting the aftermath of a global apocalypse. But while April"s Oblivion was rendered hollow by its foregrounding of spectacle over character, and while May"s After Earth got bogged down by an aggressively uninteresting premise, Elysium benefits from Blomkamp's staunch determination to use his fantastical setting in service of a personal story with a human heart.
Set in an uncomfortably close future world, where an unwieldy combination of pollution and plague have forced the world's "haves" to flee to Elysium, a wondrous orbiting space station that offers all the amenities one can possibly imagine while the "have-nots" try their best to subsist through lives of desperation on the surface, film stars the bald-pated Matt Damon as Max, a low-rung factory worker in the poverty-wracked remains of Los Angeles who suffers a freak accident that leaves him riddled with radiation poisoning and less than a week to live.
Realizing his only hope for salvation is to make his way onto Elysium, Max is soon caught up in an elaborate game of brinksmanship and political scheming. And while the film weaves in plenty of action (not to mention a big freaking metal exo-skeleton), like the very best sci-fi, Elysium excels most by making some pointed observations on the ways things are right now, whether the widening breach between the very wealthy and the very poor, the struggles of "undocumented" immigrants, or the perilous place of medical care in our daily lives.
But it isn't the content that makes this such a revelatory experience. After all, the (pointless) Total Recall remake tried to do almost the exact same thing a year ago with a parable of haves and have-nots, yet failed spectacularly to even engage. So what makes the difference? Part of that is the performances. From Damon on down, all are top notch, including Jodie Foster, who seems to be having a ball playing scheming politico Delacourt, and a typically off-center turn from Blomkamp regular Sharlto Kopley (who I also loved in The A-Team three years ago) as a wild card government operative named Kruger.
Beyond the actors, though, the other major factor that elevates Elysium is simply Blomkamp himself. With two distinctly unique projects now under his belt, I see shades of the young James Cameron, circa Terminator and Aliens, in the South African filmmaker's specific sensibilities.The 33-year-old director never lets his very specific vision of humanity and dystopia in conflict get lost in the $115 million-plus budget that the studio gave him to play with (a quantum leap beyond the $30 million it took to get 2009's District 9 made).
Coming at the very tail end of a movie season that I'm pretty sure has seen more prequels, sequels, remakes, and reboots crammed in per capita than just about any summer in recent memory, the experience of watching Elysium, that rarest of big budget blockbusters not built on the bones of some pre-existing IP, is akin to being one of the characters in the film itself, leaving the confines of the blighted, benighted Earth and taking our first breaths of the rarified air the title promises. Ah, yes. This is the good stuff. A