Elysium – Review ★★★★

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I’ve got good and bad news for you. First the good news. It’s 2154, and if you’re rich you can fly off to live like royalty on Jodie Foster’s man-made space station floating high in the sky above our planet, a bit like the one in District 9 (more of that later).

As head of security up there, Foster’s very brisk and strict, which is a bit of a drawback, but the 2001-style space station’s a real cute place to live. It’s called Elysium, by the way, but I imagine you probably guessed that.

Fine, now the bad news. Earth is devastated, like it always seems to be in futuristic movies, but here’s it’s over-populated too. Although this time there’s no drawback on the human front because Matt Damon’s our hero.

Lots of fed-up Earth folk of course would like to get to Elysium, but Foster’s determined to keep the plebs out with her uber-strict anti-immigration laws. After a bizarre accident that leaves him dying, Damon agrees to take on a mission that would save his life and open up the two different worlds to equal opportunity. A real nice guy, Damon’s a bit of a socialist, who wants equality for all!

It’s a key plot point that Elysium has healing stations that can cure everything. That’s why Damon needs to get there. They look a bit like video games, but that’s OK.
Neill Blomkamp’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to District 9 is a vastly costly ($100million), thinking person’s sc-fi action movie, which is not afraid to take its time to get to the action. When it comes, though, it’s great, a bit shaky-cam but great, and plenty lusty. I guess that means excitingly violent.

And for once, all the set-up, chatter and general future mumbo jumbo is riveting and fascinating. That’s a hard trick to pull off and Blomkamp’s up for it, just like he was in District 9. He’s managed to take various stock situations and come up with a result that’s a bit different from anything else.

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I suppose the situations and characters are a bit stereotyped. Damon’s just a poor, downtrodden boy from an orphanage trying to survive, maybe make good. Foster’s a Thatcherite right-wing, gung-ho monster keeping out immigrants. Stereotypes they may be, but they work as archetypes. They’re made to work, and work well, in the service of the story and ideas on show.

Damon makes a fine, credible everyman hero, earnest, and the perfect all-American embodiment of a man who’ll stop at nothing to do the right thing. There’s bit of Jason Bourne in the performance, but more thoughtful, warm acting’s required. This character’s human for heaven’s sake. And Damon’s up for it, in there doggedly. He’s the making of the movie in some ways. It’s a great part and he’s great in it.

Foster’s role is not so great. She’s good in it, quite chilling, but I couldn’t help wondering if Helen Mirren or Judi Dench would have provided a bit more real authority, not just been frosty. But Mirren and Dench can bring charisma to being authoritarian in screen. It’s exactly what they do. Foster not. She’s fine, though, and the movie’s not about her anyway.

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Sharlto Copley, from District 9, gets to show his versatility in a very different role as a superbad, grizzled mercenary. Classy actors Alice Braga, William Fichtner and Diego Luna are in there too, but with not quite enough to do to be memorable unfortunately.
Thanks to that massive budget, the F/X and the sets are thrilling, with the classy cinematography making the most of the eye-boggling visuals. They work easily, effortlessly and smoothly; nobody looks like they’re straining for special effects. The dying, devastated Earth looks well devastated. Elysium looks properly a place of your dreams. They’ve got it looking brilliantly right.

The movie’s incredibly smart, intelligent and exciting for a big-budget project. No doubt that’s risky at the box-office. It hasn’t taken a fortune in America, but it could do much better over here in Europe, where much larger sci-fi audiences are prepared to engage brain at the movies.

Elysium is released in UK cinemas on August 21.

Derek Winnert is a leading UK film critic and author working for Vue Cinemas, Shortlist, Onemetal, ILoveMediaCity, cubed3, Letterboxd, Universal Film Magazine, UK Film Review, jonesyinc, The Void, Celebritext and the Film Review annual. He’s also worked for TV Times, What’s On TV, TV & Satellite Week, The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. A member of the London Critics Circle, he is the author of The Virgin Encyclopedia of the Movies, The Film & Video Guide and a biography of Barbra Streisand.