The year is 2154. The Earth depleted of most of its resources, reducing it to a barely inhabitable dust bowl. The few who can afford to have fled to Elysium, a futuristic paradise floating above the Earth. Those left behind are forced to live in squaller, desperately trying to survive by any means necessary. Life expectancy is low, the people malnourished and riddled with disease. All that keeps them alive is the hope that one day they will earn enough to buy their transport to a better life on Elysium, where they can cure physical injuries and disease. This is the world of the second film from South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, Elysium.
As with his first feature, District 9, Blomkamp produces the fully realized dystopic future that is the hallmark of the very best of science fiction. It is not really a film about the future—it is about the present moment. The discrepancy between the poor and the wealthy is more exaggerated on screen then in real life, but a clear trajectory can be drawn from the now to this future.
The opening half of the film follows Max (Matt Damon) and Delacourt (Jodie Foster) as they go about their daily lives. There’s a stark contrast between the backbreaking, highly risky physical labour that Max endures daily just to survive and the highly cerebral, almost superficial tasks that Delacourt executes. Neither world is particularly favourable or enviable. Those on Earth may lead lives of few comforts, but they survive on hope and the promise of a better world. The people of Elysium, meanwhile, are haunted by the fear that the people that they oppress will rise up and destroy them.
The groundwork for the narrative is fantastic. Unfortunately, the film presents an empty promise that is never fulfilled. After an impeccably detailed setup, Blomkamp yet again falls short in the final third of the film as he throws out exposition in favour of really big explosions. The action set pieces look fantastic, and are exciting and full of energy, but they feels out of place.
Blomkamp is incredibly socially aware, but doesn’t seem to know where to take any of his ideas. Even worse, he diminishes and cheapens the realities of his worlds by turning his films into popcorn entertainment. This is especially evident in Elysium with the inclusion of Hollywood heavy weights Damon and Foster, whose work is given precedence over the more interesting and engaging performances from the supporting cast. With District 9, it was easy to forgive its shortcomings given that it was a highly ambitious first feature that mostly worked. With Elysium, the repetition of the same mistakes is harder to swallow. Blomkamp should be expanding on his previous work, not remaining content to continue along at his status quo.