By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 2, 2013 at 2:41PM
Check out our TOH! video interview with Blomkamp at 2012's Comic-Con here.
So close and yet so far, the colony of Elysium hovers just outside Earth’s atmosphere, a mere 19-minute shuttle ride away but figurative light years for the downtrodden proletarian masses of the 22nd century. So begins the much-anticipated second feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose 2009 “District 9” was one of the few recent sci-fi/fantasy pics (along with “Inception” and “Children of Men”) that deserved to be called visionary. Here, Blomkamp delivers a less dazzling but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity. Result confirms the helmer as much more than a one-hit wunderkind.
Science-fiction is, of course, often used as a vehicle to tell stories about the here and now disguised as tales of the future -- and lest anyone miss out on Blomkamp’s thoughts on contemporary immigration and health care, “Elysium” underlines and italicizes them before going over them again in yellow highlighter.
Blomkamp is a master of creating action out of a grimy, quotidian kind of next-gen hi-tech, but when it comes to metaphors, he prefers the sledgehammer.
A politically charged flight of speculative fiction makes an exciting launch, only to tailspin into an ungainly crash landing in Elysium. Coming in the wake of After Earth and White House Down, this marks Sony's third big-budget disappointment of the summer, the problems this time stemming from very deflating final act script problems that one would think could have been easily identified. Like Neill Blomkamp's out-of-nowhere sci-fi triumph with District 9 four years back, this one puts rugged action and convincing visual effects at the service of a sociologically-pointed haves-and-have-nots storyline, but when the air goes out of this balloon, it goes fast.
As with his 2009 debut, the Best Picture-nominated District 9, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up mixes sci-fi action and social parable — not consistently successfully but always emphatically. Recalling Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) by way of WALL-E, Elysium is best appreciated as an intense, brawny, effects-heavy spectacle that benefits from Matt Damon’s sympathetic performance. Unfortunately, the film’s higher aspirations — dramatic grandeur, political commentary — never come across as anything less than heavy-handed, more enjoyably overblown than genuinely captivating.
With "Elysium," Blomkamp has made good on the promise of "District 9" and proven that working on a bigger canvas doesn't mean compromising on smarts or aspirations to deliver tentpole sized stories with a thoughtful backbone. And really, it's those qualities which set "Elysium" apart from the slog of sequels, spinoffs, remakes and superhero movies. It has the audacity (at least in Hollywood terms) of aiming for something original both in concept and design, and that Blomkamp's nails it in a fashion as entertaining, thrilling and memorable as this, is all the more reason you need to see it.
Maybe Blomkamp’s next one will get a shot of nuance and take a cleansing ride through a medical scanner to rid itself of plot inconsistencies. (Those who like to gripe will have a lot of “wait, why didn’t he just…?” type of complaints.) Still, this is my kind of movie. It’s visually arresting, swings for the fences, has crazy weapons, wild technology and presents a world where a cyborg can stumble down the street and no one blinks an eye. Maybe the future isn’t all that terrible?