For stunningly relevant sci-fi, journey to Elysium

Neill Blomkamp follows up his tremendous debut District 9 with an even more epic but just as stunningly relevant sci-fi ELYSIUM.

Diego Luna as Julio, Matt Damon as Max and Wagner Moura as Spider in Elysium

Diego Luna as Julio, Matt Damon as Max and Wagner Moura as Spider

In another life, he was Jason Bourne and here the always terrific Matt Damon is the perfect choice to inhabit the damaged hero of writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s stunning new film ELYSIUM.

Damon’s Max De Costa is an ex-thief, struggling to have a normal life through a dreary day-to-day existence in Los Angeles 2154, now a frightening Third World ghetto that stands in stark contrast to where all of Earth’s privileged now live – the space station ELYSIUM that hovers above the planet, tantalisingly out of reach to everyone else. Max looked up it as a child, fascinated by its beauty and puzzled as to why there was such a division between rich and poor that led to its existence.

Now he barely acknowledges it until his friend Julio (nicely played by the ever-excellent Diego Luna) pulls him back to his old life, working for Spider, the local crime boss (a winning performance from Brazilian actor Wagner Moura). It certainly seems a tempting proposal for Max when his boring assembly line job sees him building the very droids that keep Earth’s populace its place. But with the return of his childhood soulmate Frey (a spirited Alice Braga) and the prospect of hope in Max’s life, he really should stay on the straight and narrow.

Matt Damon as Max and Frey played by Alice Braga in Elysium

Max and Frey played by Alice Braga

A twist of fate makes Max’s decision for him and Damon’s anguished face at the knowledge that he’s setting out down a path whose conclusion could be fatal is heartbreaking – like all great sci-fi (and great drama) ELYSIUM puts the hero in a life or death dilemma that’s thrilling to watch. You want him to succeed so badly as the odds against him mount and victory becomes a distant hope. It reminded me so strongly of District 9, Blomkamp’s incredible sci-fi/apartheid allegory, where he doesn’t sugar-coat things for us and I love the way he’s at times a cruel film-maker in that he pushes your emotional buttons by making you watch as characters you care about live and die.

In his debut movie, Wikus played superbly by Sharlto Copley was so unlikely a hero that we applauded his efforts to do the right thing, whilst at the same time save himself. Here, Max undergoes a transformation too, this time into a fighting machine to take on William Fichtner’s sharp and calculating corporate exec, before embarking on a journey to Elysium to confront its formidable protector Delacourt, a clipped, not-to-be-messed-with Jodie Foster (chillingly brilliant) and an almost unrecognisable Sharlto Copley – no longer the plucky Wikus but here the absolutely terrifying bounty hunter Kruger.

It’s all superlative stuff and having seen the movie a couple of weeks ago on its UK release but with a holiday intervening before I could finish this review, that time has only served to heighten my feelings of how accomplished ELYSIUM is. This is a film that asks big questions about how we live today, just as District 9 did while framing it in a future world that’s so identifiable to us. That’s Blomkamp’s cleverness as a film-maker and why I look forward to whatever he comes up with next, because from what he’s created so far, it’s certain to be both entertaining and thought-provoking – not an easy mix to get right but which he achieves so impressively.