Elysium review (Blu-ray)

For the Greeks of antiquity, Elysium was paradise, a land in the afterlife where heroes and those blessed by the gods could rest for eternity, their lives untouched by sorrow or toil. In District 9 director Blomkamp’s new politically charged sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium is the ultimate gated community, a giant space station where the world’s haves live lives of pampered luxury while the haven’t-got-a-hopes struggle to survive on the surface of a ruined, polluted Earth, the fabled Elysium always hanging in the sky above them, always tantalisingly just out of reach.

It’s the year 2154 and crime, poverty and disease are a thing of the past – if you’re a citizen of Elysium, where life is one long weekend in the Hamptons. Down on Earth, things are a little different. Crime, poverty and disease are the norm in the filthy, decaying, over-populated, sweaty shanty town that is Los Angeles with a crumbling healthcare system struggling to cope and a totalitarian government policing its population with passive-aggressive robots.

Determined to go straight, life is tough for ex-con Max (Damon) who’s barely getting by in a dead-end job building droids. Recently reunited with his childhood sweetheart, nurse and single mom Frey (Braga) whose daughter is dying of leukemia, Max’s hopes of a new life are dashed when he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work. Given just five days to live, Max’s only chance for survival lies in getting to Elysium where the technology exists to magically cure him. With the aid of the ghetto’s Che Guevara, Spider (Moura), Max’s plan to storm the gates of heaven brings him into conflict with callous Elysium Defence Secretary Delacourt (Foster) and her vicious enforcer Kruger (Copley) with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Intelligent, angry and thrilling, Elysium is a stunning rollercoaster of gorgeous eye-candy and breathless action that hits the ground running and never lets up. Like a cinematic magpie, Blomkamp borrows liberally from the best sci-fi films and novels of the past 50 years, fusing elements of William Gibson’s cyberpunk (most notably the memory/data heists of Johnny Mnemonic) Philip K Dick’s paranoid satires and Alastair Reynolds-style post-human space opera while referencing the likes of Robocop, Total Recall, Blade Runner, 2001 and his own District 9 to produce a sharp, furious allegory that like the best science fiction comments on our world today. The script is far from subtle, at times feeling like an Occupy propaganda movie, Les Miserables: A Space Opera, but who cares when you have Damon battling the evils of capitalism with guns so big they’d give Ted Nugent the high hard one. IN SPACE!

Damon is as reliable as ever, bringing a sympathetic vulnerability and an everyman quality to Max while Foster brings icy intelligence to her boo-hiss bad guy who, even while shooting down shuttle-loads of ill refugees, still has more relatable humanity than Jeremy Hunt – as does Copley’s rapey, sadistic Afrikaner cyborg henchman, a man so driven even having his face blown off by a grenade merely dents his day. Fichtner also shines as the kind of rich, privileged douchebag who gets offended by his serfs even breathing on him while Elite Squad’s brilliant, mercurial Moura steals ever scene he’s in as hustling gangster/revolutionary Spider.

Sure, the film’s a little obvious and could have done with being a bit less humourless – Blomkamp’s too busy tearing down Elysium to explore the satirical, philosophical and psychosexual JG Ballard potential of the ennui and perfection of its citizens' lives – but this is bold, brash, epic cinema that’s as smart as it is exciting.

EXTRAS ★★★½ The interactive feature Visions of 2154 (19:59); the making-of featurette The Journey to Elysium (45:49); the extended scene Kruger Wakes Up (1:45); the featurette Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium (13:18); the featurette The technology of 2154 (10:13); the featurette In Support of Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium (10:34); the featurette Engineering Utopia: Creating a Society In The Sky (11:43); and trailers.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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