Review: Matt Damon adds emotional weight to Neill Blomkamp’s smart and unsubtle ‘Elysium’

Thank god for Neill Blomkamp.

I sincerely hope I never end up writing a news story about how Neill Blomkamp, struggling to recover after a series of films that didn’t earn their money back, is now signing on to direct the reboot of the reboot of “Robocop” or some similar money-driven monstrosity. I hope he is able to follow his own particular vision for as long as he wants to, and that audiences turn up to support him enough that he is able to maintain his independence.

Also, before we get started, if this movie had been made in 1974, Charlton Heston would be playing the Matt Damon role. AND IT WOULD BE AWESOME.

Right now, my oldest son has declared himself “a science-fiction fan.” He is in the shallow end of the baby pool right now in terms of what he’s seen or read, but he spends days after each new science fiction book or movie just asking me questions, and most of them aren’t about things he saw in the film, but things that were suggested by the movies and the books.

I love that. I can see that it’s sinking in, that he’s starting to assert his own interests. When we gave him a Kindle a few weeks back, I loaded up the device with books for him to read, and I tried to touch on a pretty broad range of things. I got yelled at recently by some of you when I mentioned that one of the books that I put on the Kindle was Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” and even when I explained that I paid for that book well before I made my recent decisions about him, people were still upset.

I think they thought I was just putting that one book on Toshi’s Kindle, like I was forcing him to read that immediately. Far from it. Instead, I packed it with things like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” “Watership Down,” the first Prydain book by Lloyd Alexander, Asimov’s “Caves Of Steel,” a crash course in Jules Verne (including “Journey To The Center Of The Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”), three books by H.G. Wells (“The Time Machine,” “The Invisible Man,” and “War Of The Worlds”), Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court,” a couple of the “Star Wars” short story collections (“Tales Of The Bounty Hunters,” “Tales From Jabba’s Palace,” “Tales From The Mos Eisley Cantina”), the Harry Potter books, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the first Lemony Snicket book, “A Wrinkle In Time,” “Coraline,” “Good Omens,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Childhood’s End” by Clarke, “The Martian Chronicles,” Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and both “Cosmos” and “Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan. And, yes, “Ender’s Game” is in there, too.

When I asked him what he likes about science-fiction recently, he told me that he likes imagining other planets and he likes it when something makes him see the world in a different way. He’s at that age where he’s starting to understand what metaphor is, and that there’s more to a story or a movie or a book than just the surface. He says he likes science-fiction because it engages his powers of imagination in a way that nothing else does so far, and because he wants to believe that the future is full of possibilities and miracles.

I suspect Neill Blomkamp was the same way when he was a kid. There is no doubt as you look at his work that he is drawing on a broad base of knowledge of the genre. He approaches the world-building in his movies with a truly brilliant eye for reality. He is painting in big broad metaphor here. I would say there is very little about the movie that I think is subtle, but I don’t think it’s required for this sort of thing. Sometimes, you need a hammer to deliver a message, and as long as it feels genuine, I’m okay with unsubtle. I am also impressed by how he makes Earth and Elysium feel like real environments, because this “world as metaphor” thing can easily break down. Just look at “In Time” or “Upside Down” for truly painful versions of that, and you see how easy it would be for the whole enterprise to tip over into silly.

Max (Matt Damon) has never had it easy. He grew up in an orphanage, and even as a kid, he was constantly in trouble, stealing to get whatever he wanted, with only one close friend, a girl named Frey. Blomkamp shows us quick scenes of childhood, basically punctuating who Max is as we get to know him in the present. He’s tried to leave his criminal career behind him, and he has a job at the factory where they build the various robots we see working as police and security and EMS over the course of the film.

Life on Earth is miserable, and Blomkamp paints a convincingly run down portrait of what life is life for anyone living there. His whole life, Max has been tortured by the view of Elysium in the sky overhead, a space station where the 1% have all moved, where life is beautiful and easy and where any illness can be cured in a matter of moments. He has always kept the dream of Elysium as a goal for himself, while knowing full well that the odds are against him ever finding a way to get up there.

Blomkamp also introduces us to the people who keep Elysium working, including Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and President Patel (Faran Tahir), and while Elysium is beautiful, the politics of the place are really ugly. I was surprised to see Foster playing this kind of role, and I like that. Her fierce intelligence reads one way onscreen when she’s playing someone virtuous, but it’s very different when she’s playing someone who has a broken moral compass. It’s scarier precisely because she’s obviously very smart.

She shows early on in the film that the only thing that matters to her at all is the safety of the citizens of Elysium and a strict enforcement of who qualifies for that citizenship. She has no problem killing anyone who tries to land on Elysium illegally, no matter their age or their reasons. It is a source of some contention, as is her insistence on using Kruger (Sharlto Copley) as an Earthside enforcer. He’s a horrifying character simply because of his total lack of conscience in terms of what he’ll do. He is the worst kind of privatized security labor, amoral, happy to kill, and remorseless. He is the weapon, but Delacourt is the one with her finger on the trigger, and the two of them together are the worst face of Elysium.

Thanks to an accident at work, Max goes from wanting to visit Elysium to needing that visit, and his timeline seems next to impossible. He has five days to either get himself into one of Elysium’s medical machines, or he’s dead, and he is determined not to let that happen. I find Damon’s work in the film to be casually great. It’s a performance that doesn’t necessarily look like the most demanding thing he’s ever done, but the work he does here is deceptively complex. I like that as put upon as Max is in his life, he can’t resist an ill-timed wise crack, even when he knows it’s going to cost him deeply. Max’s conversion from car thief to factory work wasn’t motivated by selflessness, but by fear. He knows how close he is to getting totally flushed by the system, and he’s barely holding on to a quality of life that looks terrible to me, but it’s better than whatever alternatives there are for Max.

Once he’s pushed to desperation, though, he’s willing to do anything to get to Elysium, and that’s where the film starts to get really crazy. Blomkamp had aliens to play with in “District 9,” and in this film, the really outrageous stuff has to do with body augmentation and the technology of death. There are some “Robocop” crazy moments of violence here, and humor so dark I’m surprised Blomkamp got away with it. It’s a very stylized world, and that includes the performances. Wagner Moura made a huge impression on me with his work in both of Jose Padilla’s “Elite Squad” movies, and his work here as Spider is completely balls to the wall.

Spider’s an underground tech rebel, a guy determined to use The Man’s own tools to bring him down. He’s an opportunist when we meet him, and the underworld he is part of seems like a very scary, grimy, ugly place. But there’s way more of him in the film than I expected. Moura plays a very key role in what happens, and in the fate of not only Max, but really everyone who was left behind with the rich left Earth behind. I think it’s a great performance, and in some movies, his might be the broadest character, the one that is sort of larger than life.

That’s not the case when you’ve got Copley as Kruger in the same film, because that is one crazy gonzo over-the-top piece of work, all in service of what I think becomes a pretty scary character by the end of the film. It’s creepy when villains have some particular world view and belief system driving them that is wrong, but I think it’s much scarier when you realize someone is driven by no world view at all. Base instinct in place of considered action. I think that’s what we see in the form of Copley and his men. There are stretches of the film where Copley is the center of gravity. You can’t stop looking at him, watching the choices he’s making. He’s repulsive here, but in a way that you have to watch because it is so electrifying and scary and unexpected. He is unrecognizable as the lead of “District 9,” and I hope he’s a lifelong collaborator with Blomkamp. They seem perfectly suited to one another.

As much as the film is Max’s story, there are many other people who all have their reasons to be involved. Frey (Alice Braga) comes back into Max’s life at a moment that he doesn’t expect it, and when he turns to her for help, it’s a natural gesture, but it’s also basically a death sentence for her and for her daughter, a little girl who has health issues of her own. Max draws her into things whether he means to or not, and there’s a sequence in the film where Max comes face to face with this little girl, Frey’s daughter. And he has no idea what to say, because he knows how shitty the world is. He knows how rough life will be for her. He knows everything she’ll never have, everything she’ll grow up wanting if she’s even lucky enough to survive her disease. And he has no idea how this little girl can have any optimism at all. It’s a really sad moment, because it underlines that Max, like everyone, has stopped living and just gone into a sort of default survival mode. They’re alive… but they’re not really living. They’re not really feeling any of it. They can’t afford to.

Blomkamp’s world is way more than just the blatant visual metaphor: the rich live above us, untouchable, always in front of us, but beyond our reach. If that’s the only idea the film had, it wouldn’t work. I think the film is much more about what we will do for our children. Delacourt asks a very pointed question of the President early in the film: “Do you have children?” And the simmering ferocity of the way she asks it, the way she talks to him when she is sure he does not have children, it’s great work, and I think Delacourt is genuinely morally outraged. It’s not an act. She is convinced that unless she is willing to do the unthinkable to protect Elysium and the world that her children live in, she should not be in charge of protecting it. She is expected to cross the line, at least as far as she sees it.

Alice Braga is equally affecting in the way she fights for her daughter, and Blomkamp really heaps the abuse on Braga. It’s a bit of a thankless role, because she takes the brunt of a lot of the physical violence, but Braga makes so much of it live and breathe that it feels like she’s playing something more well-rounded and real than what we’re seeing. Her love for her daughter is her one drive in the movie, and I like the way Blomkamp plays the melancholy of the relationship that Braga has with Damon. They haven’t seen each other in years, but as kids, they relied on one another every day. They were as close as they could be. Blomkamp is very good as suggesting volumes about character with just a few quick visual details, and I think Braga is emotionally right on the money in scene after scene.

William Fichtner is great, although he’s only in a few moments. It’s great meticulous character work, and I’d love to see a whole movie about what a freak this character must be once he leaves this factory every day. Diego Luna gives a great low-key supporting performance, a sounding board for Max for a lot of the film. And whoever found Maxwell Perry Cotton, who plays the young Max, deserves a raise or a bonus or some such thing because that kid looks and acts like he is absolutely going to grow up to be Matt Damon.

While I still think I prefer “District 9,” I think “Elysium” is a big ambitious solid second movie, a triple in baseball terms, a further showcase for Blomkamp’s visual imagination and his uncanny knack for getting an effect to look organic. I am blown away that this is Ryan Amon’s first feature film score, because it’s great. It is a strong emotional groundwork, and Trent Opaloch’s photography does a great job of evoking not only the harsh, stinking, dirty reality of Earth, but also the pristine calm of Elysium. I’m dying to see his work on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” especially after the sequence I saw at Comic-Con.

I sat down with the cast and with Blomkamp earlier today to discuss the film, and we’ll bring you that coverage soon. I am excited because I think this has a real chance of reaching a broad audience. I am excited because Blomkamp seems dedicated to bringing this sort of detailed world-building ability to many more original films, and I am excited because he’ll probably end up working with Sharlto Copley in all of them. But mostly I am excited because no matter how much people want to complain that the sky is falling in terms of the state of cinema today, a guy like Neill Blomkamp proves that raw talent can still find a way to assert itself, and that occasionally, the right people break through and get to make amazing, unusual, original things.

By now, you may have looked back at the letter grade at the top of the article, or maybe that was what you looked at first, but you may be surprised to see it’s a B+ after everything I’ve just written. “Elysium” is in such a hurry that it forgets to take those moments that breathe, where an audience can brace for the big finish. It’s a very good movie, but the movie seems dead set on bulldozing everything.

So even though there are choices in the film that I wasn’t crazy about, and even though the film is cut like the editor is being chased at times, “Elysium” is a trip worth taking, no doubt about it.

“Elysium” opens in theaters August 9, 2013.