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'Elysium' review: Digital Spy verdict

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Released on Thursday, Aug 8 2013

Director: Neill Blomkamp; Screenwriter Neill Blomkamp; Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner; Running time: 109 mins; Certificate: 15


Where Neill Blomkamp's smart, gritty, politically astute District 9 took its sociological cues from post-apartheid South Africa, his follow-up feels firmly rooted in modern-day America, its central thrust being the haves and have-nots of healthcare. On a diseased, polluted and over-populated future Earth that has been abandoned by the wealthy, citizens struggle to make a living from menial, dangerous jobs and wither from illnesses that are easily curable for those with the means.

The skeleton of Elysium's story is closely aligned with District 9: Matt Damon's everyman protagonist Max suffers an accident that leads to a terrifying physical mutation, and his mission is fuelled by the desire to reverse the effects. The stakes are arguably higher here, as Max is dying slowly from radiation poisoning rather than morphing into a different species, and his only hope for survival is a ticket to technologically advanced utopian space station Elysium.

Sharlto Copley in 'Elysium'

© Sony Pictures

Sharlto Copley as Kruger

His physical mutation has been central to much of the film's marketing imagery, and brings in a compelling element of body horror: blackmailed into becoming a freedom fighter in exchange for a chance for survival, Max is fitted with a new robotic nervous system to help him infiltrate the government's high-tech operations. There's none of the thematic elegance that made District 9's morphing so poignant, where Wikus became more human as his body became less so, but the journey is still gripping thanks to Damon's affecting performance; Max shows real terror and grief at the prospect of his own death to an extent that many action heroes wouldn't.

Jodie Foster embodies Daily Mail scaremongering as Elysium's icy defence secretary who wants to keep immigrants from Earth out at all costs, while William Fichtner plays the government agent who becomes Max's primary target; both play corporate-evil with the efficiency you expect. The real surprise is just what a generic villain Sharlto Copley's brutish sleeper agent Kruger ends up being; a slavering psychopath without shading or variation.

Blomkamp's attention to detail remains rigorous, and he has drawn a terrifyingly plausible vision of the future that feels lived-in in a way that, say, Oblivion's world never did. There are thought-provoking nuggets throughout - robotic crime enforcement has not eliminated police brutality, it seems - but the central action becomes increasingly generic, as Max's strained relationship with his childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga) and her daughter adds a needless layer of sentimental conflict.

A sci-fi world this internally consistent and emotionally compelling is nothing to be sniffed at, and Blomkamp remains one of the most exciting directors working in the genre. Elysium is more generic than fans will hope for, but Damon's committed turn and its detailed, haunting vision of the future still resonate.

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