In his sophomore feature Elysium, writer/director Neill Blomkamp takes a more literal approach to some of the humanistic themes explored in his 2009 feature debut District 9. The result is a more traditionally structured film with a slightly more predictable plot, but it's an exciting, emotionally involving trip into a frighteningly plausible (and vividly realized) future nonetheless. This time, backed by a bigger budget and a more experienced cast, Blomkamp proves that his vision is indeed capable of sustaining a larger-scale story by delivering a carefully balanced mix of social commentary and innovative sci-fi action amidst completely immersive backdrops both down on Earth and up in the stars.
The year is 2154, and the division between social classes has grown wider than ever before. As the rich enjoy a life of luxury and access to cutting-edge medical technology on Elysium -- a heavily fortified, Earth-orbiting space station that beckons to the masses below -- the rest of the human race contend with poverty, crime, and disease on the planet's surface. Meanwhile, hard-line immigration laws ensure that only those who have been explicitly approved will ever set foot on the elusive paradise in the stars. Thirty-six-year-old Max (Matt Damon) resides in an L.A. shantytown and earns his living by working on an assembly line at Armadyne -- a powerful tech company. Max has had a rough past, but he's struggling to stay on the right side of the law when he realizes that his only hope for survival after being exposed to deadly radiation is to reach Elysium. Should Max succeed, he will strike a major blow for equality in the eyes of his fellow surface dwellers, including his lifelong love Frey (Alice Braga) and her leukemia-stricken daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay); should he fail, it will mean certain death. In his quest to become the hero who can restore the balance between the rich and the poor, however, Max must first do battle with Elysium's hawkish Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has devoted her entire career to maintaining that division, and whose key enforcer Kruger (Sharlto Copley) is notorious for his brutal tactics in driving out illegals. With his health quickly deteriorating, desperate Max agrees to earn his ticket to Elysium by performing one last job for his shady former employer Spider (Wagner Moura), who outfits him with some highly advanced body armor in order to steal crucial data from Armadyne boss John Carlyle (William Fichtner). When the job fails to go as planned, Max's desperate race to Elysium begins.
In the opening scenes of Elysium, we meet an orphaned Max as he gazes longingly at the picturesque space station above while dreaming of one day escaping planet Earth with his best friend Frey. Over the years, the image of the child with his eyes turned up to the night sky has become something of a sci-fi cliché, though here Blomkamp places it in a context that inspires not just starry-eyed wonder, but genuine compassion as well. Shortly thereafter, when we first meet Max as an adult, we learn that circumstance has driven this good man to a life of crime -- a life that he is currently attempting to reclaim through honest work. Max is a blue-collar guy, and as a writer Blomkamp underscores that status both to establish the character as an honest everyman and to effectively contrast him against Foster's cunning, power-hungry Delacourt (a cowardly leader who's quick to play the "think about the children" card when things aren't going her way). This disparity is thrown into even sharper perspective when, in a tense early scene that's smartly echoed later in the film, Delacourt calls on Kruger to prevent a small fleet of shuttles loaded with the sick and desperate from breaching Elysium's atmosphere. If Foster's platinum blonde Darth Vader shtick only manages to inspire disgust in viewers, Copley's sneering Kruger is sure to add a healthy dose of skin-crawling fear.
In District 9, Copley's bumbling Wikus van der Merwe was driven by one of the more inspired character arcs in contemporary sci-fi cinema. Though Max's development may not be as physically striking or psychologically profound, Damon speaks volumes about the character's transformation from selfish to selfless through expression alone. Whether viewed as a flaw in screenwriting or strength in the performance, it's a testament to the combined talents of Blomkamp and Damon that the character's evolution still comes through even though it's never expressed explicitly. And though it's fair to say that, much like District 9, Elysium's politics can feel heavy-handed at times, Blomkamp's talent for folding them into an emotionally involving and viscerally exciting plot speaks well to his abilities as a filmmaker at this early stage of his career.
Meanwhile, those viewers who favor spectacle over storytelling are certain to get their money's worth thanks to some intense action sequences that merge Blomkamp's tangible love for inventive sci-fi weaponry with his uniquely scrappy visual style. There may not be quite as many exploding bodies as there were in District 9, but that isn't to say that the action here is any less impactful -- especially once the fight moves from Earth to Elysium in the film's high-stakes final act.
By that point we may well have surmised that the creative spark that burned so bright in District 9 seems a bit less luminous here, though the recognition that Blomkamp is once again using the sci-fi genre not just to thrill but to communicate something genuinely substantial is still very much prevalent. Likewise, if he has succeeded in doing his job as a storyteller, audiences will come out of Elysium not arguing about partisan politics, but instead questioning how we can work together for the betterment of mankind rather than the benefit of politicians and corporations.