Apparently, hurried observers have as one of their favourite pastimes throwing the baby out with the bath water. For instance: all the blockbusters you've been seeing are crap, therefore all blockbusters are crap. This is where a film like South-African director Neill Blomkamp's sophomore effort, Elysium, exposes the argument: it's a film that hews closely to the traditional blockbuster form and style, yet injects in it something else, a different attitude that sets it somewhat apart.

     In this case, what Mr. Blomkamp does is use, again, genre as a distorted mirror of modern society, just as he had done in his wildly successful debut District 9. There, he used immigration and xenophobia, coloured by South Africa's apartheid past, to underlay its futuristic, derivative science-fiction/actioner structure. Here, immigration is again part of the mix, but Elysium is more of a meditation on class and wealth set in an over-populated, under-resourced dystopian Earth 150 years in the future, meticulously created by production designer Philip Ivey. The moneyed elite has set itself apart by living leisurely in an orbital space station called Elysium, whereas everyone else struggles to survive basically as working drones to maintain the space station's economy.

     Such class distinction in science-fiction goes all the way back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but Mr. Blomkamp, who also scripted, brings it up to date by making the flashpoint of this future dystopia healthcare: medical technology has evolved to the point all disease can be eradicated, but is only available to Elysium residents and off-limits to everyone else. This makes clear the director's vision makes the film a resonant sci-fier for the Occupy generation, the issues it reflects being pretty much global concerns but gaining a particular resonance in modern America with its security and healthcare debates.

    While this suggests Elysium is more of a pamphlet than a film, the grace note is that Mr. Blomkamp drops the subject into a well-made if somewhat generic action movie, a bit too close to the District 9 formula, that makes the most of its global positioning: not only does it eschew the traditional Anglo-centred plotting (the Los Angeles of 2154 is as much Latino as Anglo and effectively bilingual) but its supporting cast is openly global. South-African actor Sharlto Copley, the breakout star of District 9, is here a gloriously unhinged psychotic villain, and dynamic smuggler Spider may give Brazilian Wagner Moura (from the Elite Squad films) his own international breakout, with the other key roles being played by Mexican Diego Luna and Brazilian actress Alice Braga.

     Still, the names above the title are two bonafide film stars: Matt Damon doesn't really sweat it as hero Max da Costa, an ex-con worker who can't seem to get a break and whose desperation propels him to strike at the status quo, while Jodie Foster has a rare villainess role as the sneering, coldly ambitious defense minister of Elysium, determined to keep the "great unwashed" away. Neither role pushes the actors' range, but, as Hollywood luminaries, their presence also validates Mr. Blomkamp's earnestness in attempting a "thinking blockbuster" - shot with pretty much all the returning crew from District 9  - that will satisfy both action fans and those who demand a little more substance from their entertainment. Elysium works on both counts, but it's a mild letdown after the potency of District 9, looking far too much like a bigger-budget retread with stars of that film's combination of genre and social satire.

Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Director, writer: Neill Blomkamp
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Ryan Amon
Designer: Philip Ivey
Costumes: April Ferry
Editors: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith
Visual effects: Peter Muyzers
Producers: Bill Block, Mr. Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg (Media Rights Capital, QED International, Alphacore, Kinberg Genre Productions)
USA, 2013, 109 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, August 6th 2013


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