When Total Film saw Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian mindfuck District 9 (2009), we were blown away.
A “stunning debut,” we called the epic fantasy that wrangled hot-button issues of racism, subjugation and segregation, “heralding the arrival of an exciting new action-cinema voice”.
Neo-realist, gritty, innovative and boasting a gut-punch of an arc for its protagonist (Sharlto Copley), from selfish to selfless, District 9 was a promise of greatness from Blomkamp and a brave new world of smart sci-fi for heart and head.
Four years on, and here’s his hugely anticipated follow-up, Elysium … and Blomkamp has done it again. Almost exactly. The set-up’s tweaked – in 2154, Earth’s been bled dry and the rich live in a space station while the poor, disenfranchised and ill scrape an existence miles below – but Elysium shares strikingly similar visual/narrative/emotional beats with its predecessor.
It’s still exciting and thought-provoking – but less fresh and consequently, something of a disappointment.
Lens flare glints handsomely off a richly detailed decaying world (à la D9 ) as ex-con Max (Matt Damon, reliably compelling) is forced to become an unlikely freedom fighter when his own health is compromised.
On Elysium, the wealthy have medical pods which eradicate disease, injury and even sun damage. So if Max can break into the hi-tech torus he could heal himself and perhaps “change the world”...
Going up against him is Copley’s venal sleeper agent, Kruger (a surprisingly standard-issue psychobaddie with misogynist streak), who’s working for self-serving Elysium gatekeeper secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster, with distracting roving accent and propensity to flounce).
Also along for the ride: a sidelined Diego Luna; a couple of awesome action set-pieces and gross/inventive SFX moments; recurring sledgehammer sentimentality; and an emotional pay-off that echoes another futuristic tentpoler out this summer.
It’s all accomplished, engaging and goodlooking stuff. But it’s not unique (tonally evoking last year’s Total Recall remake isn’t exactly a plus) or groundbreaking – which, perhaps unfairly, is what’s expected from Blomkamp’s sophomore outing.
Maybe he’s a one-trick pony? Or maybe the edges got knocked off a more daring project by a larger budget and more studio control? ( D9 was made for $34m under the mentoring eye of Peter Jackson.)
Either way, this perfectly alright actioner will entertain newcomers, while leaving Blomkamp fans in a holding pattern until his next project.
Slick and stylish, Elysium shines like the space station at its core – and feels as sterile and generic, too.