Lincoln’s Movie Night: Elysium


Written & Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, and Alice Braga
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout

When a director has done only two major feature films, it’s difficult not to compare them, particularly if they fall in the same genre. When one was a breakout, unexpected sleeper hit, there’s even more pressure on the sophomore work. It happened when Moon director Duncan Jones released Source Code and a similar dynamic is at work here, with Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up Elysium.

However, for the most part, those fears can be laid to rest.

Elysium follows Max (Matt Damon), a convict trying to turn his life around, working on an assembly line for a mega conglomerate. Earth is a wreck, a dry mess of slums, dust and hardship. The rich have abandoned the planet for the titular space station, a paradise where any health or cosmetic problem can be fixed by a brief turn in a healing bed. When Max has an accident at work, he partners with a black market, surprisingly altruistic gang leader. Time is running out, and he has to make it to Elysium.

Probably the most unfair part about any review of Elysium is that it will be compared to District 9. With that film, we got something utterly alien to most of us. Yes, there were some familiar science fiction tropes, but the South African setting—something intimately familiar to the director—as well as the unflinching body horror and the unknown actors made for a truly special cinematic experience. Here, the main character’s story arc can likely be plotted out by anyone who has seen any number of “unlikely anti-hero makes good” films. There are sadly few surprises ahead.

While it’s no surprise that Blomkamp—who addressed apartheid in District 9—would inject politics into this movie, here it feels less realized and more like window dressing. Whether this is because we don’t get the cultural world-building we did before, or simply because it’s a less personal topic, there are moments when the stakes simply don’t feel as high as they should.

So you might be asking yourself why, then, is this a three-star review? Well, it’s because it’s a damn good film, despite treading familiar ground. Matt Damon as Max is believable as an ex-con trying to make good, as is Jodie Foster as a borderline sociopathic defense secretary who is keeping Elysium free of “illegals” at all costs. But once again, it’s Blomkamp’s golden boy Sharlto Copley who steals the show. Gone is the unassuming Wikus of District 9; say hello to Kruger—sick, dangerous and utterly arresting for every second that he’s on screen.

With some fantastic set pieces, excellent acting, and a nice nod to the grosser moments of District 9 (you’ll know it when you see it), Elysium isn’t as good as it should be. It’s still that rarest of creatures though: a hard-R genre film with the brains and visuals to keep you entertained.

Elysium is rated R for language and head-exploding (though less so than District 9). It hit theaters on Friday, August 9.