By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 2, 2013 at 2:41PM
South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp had a tall mountain to climb with his follow-up to low-budget Best Picture Oscar contender "District 9," which scored $215 million worldwide. Ever since the indie pick-up put Blomkamp on the map as an original filmmaker with an extraordinary command over VFX, film fans have eagerly awaited his next. Sony primed the pump for his $90 million sci-fi thriller "Elysium" (August 9) at Comic-Con last year, where Hall H exploded over seven minutes of early footage.
Set in 2154, in a world that has become our worst nightmare of a Third World trash dump, the film tracks Max (a streetwise yet vulnerable Matt Damon), a factory worker parolee trying to go straight in over-populated and infected hell-hole Los Angeles. When he is neglectfully exposed to lethal radiation in an industrial accident at his factory, he's given five days to live. To save himself, he returns to his former criminal cronies, who send him on a dangerous mission to earn his ticket to Elysium, the fantasy resort satellite created by the 1 % who can afford to live in unpolluted luxury, where any ailment can be cured within seconds, orbiting peacefully above the Earth.
Intercepting illegal earthlings (read aliens) on space shuttles and blowing them out of the sky is Elysium's ruthless French security chief (a fearsome Jodie Foster, whose foreign accent is distracting). Her muscle on Earth is renegade military man (Sharlto Copley of "District 9") who hunts down Max with an impressive arsenal, including droids, who also function as the world's robocops (this is one of several upcoming films to address this topic). Copley's the most entertaining character in the movie, and brings a welcome sense of humor to his anarchic Id on the rampage--when he starts blowing up Elysium we're rooting for him. A less effective subplot featuring Alice Braga as Max's angelic love interest with a terminally ill daughter unbelievably ratchets up the stakes.
Blomkamp combines earnest politics and social commentary about wealth discrepancy and the gap between rich and poor with the satisfying explosive pyrotechnics of a violent action movie--I love his artful use of slow motion. He shot the film, which he admits is influenced by Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," in Canada and Mexico with much of his old crew and the same general approach as "District 9," but with a much larger budget. But the movie doesn't get over-pixellated.
Blomkamp grounds "Elysium," often sticking to Damon's POV. The effects are realistic, characteristically gritty and on a far grander scale than "District 9." The film was shot on location at the second largest garbage dump in the world in Mexico City, where the crew could wear gas masks but the actors could not as fecal matter dust was kicked up by roaring helicopter blades. Every detail seems thought-out as the filmmaker deploys a range of VFX houses and techniques (CG animation, mo-cap, miniatures and models) to execute a sophisticated mix of epic slum settings as well as futuristic Elysium and nifty spacecraft and weaponry, expertly designed by Weta. (Blomkamp's script is James Cameron-level smart about setting up the weapons that will be used in various fight scenes and battles.) The complex sound design is superb, with a constant tech drone, and modulated contrasts between Earth's din and the smooth whir of shuttles in space.
That said, while in no way does this film devolve into formula--it is thankfully an original--and Blomkamp's autonomy is evident, as the film was again set up as an indie pick-up, like many summer entertainments the technological expertise involved is greater than the sum of its characters. While I applaud the movie's message, its heart gets lost in the noisy scramble.
Our review round-up is below; critical reactions range from moderately positive to negative, with Variety calling the film "less dazzling [than 'District 9'] but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent," while The Wrap writes that Blomkamp has the political-message subtlety of a "sledgehammer," and THR notes the film's "very deflating final act script problems."