Between this and District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp feels like someone who is trying to desperately be the next Paul Verhoeven. Many hallmarks can be found in his science fiction films, from the continual social commentary about current events to the combination of CGI and practical special effects.
It's unfortunate he didn't take a few more tips as if he did he might have given us a decent film.
Set in the near future, Earth is a barely stable ravaged wasteland. Years of pollution, overpopulation and use of its resources have caused near total societal collapse. Much of humanity now lives in derelict slums, either living in what was left behind in a better age, usually jobless and turning to crime, or working in minimal pay jobs to supply resources for the rich. Said 1% lives in the orbiting city of Elysium, in complete paradise and without the slightest want.
However, as conflicts between the head of defence and president elect come to a head, a dying man ends up carrying some vital information. One which could be used to forever doom what's left of those on Earth or ensure their salvation.
The plot of the film is obviously banking on exploiting the ongoing dissatisfaction with world leaders, industrial CEOs and the generally better off in light of the current financial crisis. Effectively all of them are touched upon as villains in some way or another ranging from the cartoonishly villainous to those completely unthinking of the many beneath them. They are privileged better off and hoarding technology which could easily benefit all of humanity for themselves. It's heavy handed but the odd thing is that at first it kind of works.
The opening act of the film manages to more or less balance out the two sides in an odd way. While the upper class overlords on Elysium are clearly the villains, those on Earth are hardly without flaws and many are shown to be just as bad. Spider (Wagner Moura), a criminal mob boss with access to stolen shuttles and advanced technology, exploits the downtrodden as much as the corporate CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner). Making money off of their desperation to have a better life or live in a better way, often with the support of dangerous gun-toting figures in order to do so. Even our hero, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), doesn't look exactly like a heroic figure or a person to lead the revolution. He's certainly likable, initially, but has a long history of theft, assault, and close links with crime. While there is a clear degree of black and white, there's this tantalizing sign that Elysium might actually allow for some grey to exist. Unfortunately for us that's not the case.
As the film starts rolling, the plot gradually caves in upon itself. Any initial signs of a slightly balanced portrayal rapidly disappear as Spider's mob of armed thugs go from people making money off of desperation to effectively the rebel alliance and Da Costa loses all charisma and wit. Furthermore, plot holes in the film's design department and basic writing begin opening up everywhere. Ranging from the overall appearance of the power armour and unexplained radiation blasting to a character randomly resisting attempts to save their life. This only gets progressively worse until the film reaches a conclusion which not only feels as if it's desperate to get ride of as many people as fast a possible but has Steven Moffat sized gaping flaws. The desperation to get rid of characters likely stems from the vast number included which Blomkamp apparently had no idea what to do with. Jessica Delacourt (Jodi Foster) suffers the most from this, with her presence feeling fairly superfluous and tacked on as a love interest role.
If you're there for a well-developed story, with standout characters and memorable events, you're not going to get anything of real interest. The rest of it though, that manages to at least be passable with quite a few excellently delivered aspects.
Whatever its problems with its story, the visual narrative is definitely much stronger. Blomkamp shows that he can put a decent film together with the cinematography giving the right emphasis upon characters and environments. Not allowing one to overcome the former as has been the cast in many films of the recent years. He knows how to have one shot move into the next and when to create memorable scenes of science fiction CGI galore. The only place he does stumble is in the ending combat scene which engages in a little too much blurry close-ups in the fight between characters. A disappointment given the tense car ambush which is the film's other major fight.
The aforementioned science fiction CGI galore is also up to a high standard. As well as being of a very high quality, the overall designs, aesthetics and environments are also interesting.
There's a clear amount of thought which has been put into the look of the robotic soldiers and aircraft which contrasts well with the almost intentionally retro looking Elysium station. There's some almost Human Revolution influences here and there with the sharp contrasts between the dilapidated buildings and well off environments as well as the more industrial looks of the place. While by no means the most original designs, many areas and environments have had their own spin put on them to try and stand out. From modified old weapons like a fire selection kalashnikov with tooled up details to a small arms coilgun, it feels as if there's some definitive effort put in. It's ultimately this effort at originality, and the lack of insulting all of humanity's achievements and very existence which elevates it above James Cameron's Avatar.
While aspects of the film do stand out, Elysium isn't a recommended film. The conclusion is just too much of a disappointment to really sit through, and the good ideas here and there make it better to examine. Using the designs and cinematography for lessons rather than enjoyment. If you are truly interested then the film might be worth a rental, but otherwise save your money for something better.