With “Elysium,” a nightmarish action thriller set in an apocalyptic future, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp proves that he’s the reigning master of dystopian political allegory. In his stunning 2009 debut, “District 9,” he used a similarly downbeat sci-fi story as a wildly imaginative allegory for his country’s apartheid past and its present-day artifacts.
“Elysium” doesn’t pack nearly the same startling punch, and its political agenda is far more ham-handed, but Blomkamp shows that, along with such contemporaries as Rian Johnson (“Looper”) and Duncan Jones (“Moon,” “Source Code”), he’s part of an innovative generation breathing new life into a time-honored genre.
Set in 2154, “Elysium” takes place in Los Angeles, a polluted, overpopulated, chaotic police state run by greedy corporate interests and ruthless robo-cops, and where an ex-convict named Max (Matt Damon) works in a factory making the armed metallic thugs who routinely oppress him.
With his head shaven to a cue-ball sheen, his body covered in tattoos and his ankle encased in a low-jack, Damon all but abandons his clean-cut image to play a buff, cynical anti-hero. When Max is sent on a mission to Elysium, an elite satellite compound that whirls like a seductive giant hood ornament hundreds of miles from ravaged Earth, it’s not to save mankind but to save himself.
Not surprisingly, Max’s tough-guy reserve will crack, in this instance after an encounter with his childhood love, played by Alice Braga.
And, once he’s outfitted with a set of computerized armor in a gruesomely graphic sequence set in a human chop shop, Max becomes something of a super-anti-hero - a one-man intra-galactic Dream Act who promises to open up the wealth, serenity and cure-all health-care system of the ultimate gated community for the huddled masses teeming below its airspace.
To do that, he must conquer Elysium’s ice queen of a defense secretary, played by Jodie Foster with an indeterminate accent and stylish cool worthy of Christine Lagarde (even Foster’s wrist communicator is by Bulgari). And he must overpower her most deranged minion, a mercenary monster named Kruger, played by “District 9” star Sharlto Copley with manic touches of mean-spirited wit.
As a commentary on contemporary wealth disparities, environmental degradation and immigration issues, “Elysium” is arguably too on-the-nose. Blomkamp’s admirable if obvious egalitarianism too often devolves into simplistic wish-fulfillment.
Still, his formidable visual imagination is on full display in a movie that has spared nothing in persuasively bringing to life both an inhumane terrestrial world and the whirling gyre of protection and privilege above it. (Like “Pacific Rim” earlier this summer, “Elysium” features a distressed, scuffed-up version of the future, in which once-shiny machines are now rusty and covered with graffiti.)
And, as in “District 9,” the filmmaker exhibits a strong penchant for blowing people’s heads off in liquid, Ralph Steadman-like blurs.
A high-low tension runs through “Elysium,” not only in the narrative itself, but in Blomkamp’s own cinematic language, which can be lofty one moment and gleefully pulpy the next.
If that juxtaposition isn’t quite as bracing as it was in “District 9,” Blomkamp is still clearly on his own mission: to bring new intelligence and even principles to bear on a genre too often dominated by banal cyborgs and recycled plots.
The future he imagines may be grim, but the one he represents is full of promise.