Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s unheralded feature debut, “District 9,” arrived like a bolt of lightning in 2009. With its propulsive energy and pointed aliens-as-apartheid allegory, the film racked up stellar reviews, a $115-million box office take and four Academy Award nominations, including for best picture. While it might be overkill to declare his follow-up, “Elysium,” a sophomore slump, reviews have been more measured this time around.
“Elysium” tells the story of an accident-stricken factory worker (Matt Damon) in 2154 Los Angeles who races to save his life by gaining access to an exclusive space station where the ruling class resides. The Times’ Kenneth Turan calls the film “something of a disappointment, an epic that has gone over to the dark side without realizing it.” Comparing the film to its predecessor, Turan writes, “‘District 9' succeeded in part because of the strength of its unexpected core idea … ‘Elysium’ makes a similar attempt to graft socio-political concerns onto a sci-fi framework, but the idea is less electric here and the combining of genre and theme not as adroitly done.”
Although “Elysium” starts strong and Damon “is a big plus as always,” Turan laments that the film eventually lapses into a standard good-guy-versus-bad-guy showdown.
In a more positive review, USA Today’s Claudia Puig says “Elysium” “is decidedly more thought-provoking than most big-studio summer fare. Director Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian sci-fi thriller is absorbing, stylish and well-acted.” On the other hand, she agrees with Turan that “it doesn’t fully realize its fascinating premise, or live up to the promise established by Blomkamp’s riveting last film.”
Scott Foundas of Variety also finds “Elysium” to be “a less dazzling [than ‘District 9'] but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity.” Blomkamp, for his part, “proves to be a superb storyteller” with “a master’s sense of pacing,” and he “writes juicy characters, too.”
The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek gives a mixed review. She writes, “‘District 9' was most notable for Blomkamp’s skill at creating a believable sci-fi world without spending a lot of dough. The movie felt as if, against all odds, its creator had willed it into being. ‘Elysium’ doesn’t have the same brashness. Though the plot specifics are different, thematically it looks and feels almost like a sequel, made with a lot more money though not with more ingenuity or feeling.”
For the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, it’s Damon who saves the day. She writes, “Putting the world in Mr. Damon’s hands is as smart as making him the star of a big special-effects fantasia … [His] character is crucial to making ‘Elysium’ work as well as it does for the simple reason that Mr. Damon’s performance helps keep the movie from sinking under the weight of its artfully constructed horrors.” Blomkamp, meanwhile, “turns out to be much better at blowing things up than putting the shattered pieces together, though this may also be a matter of box-office calculation.”
The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr finds “Elysium” overly familiar, describing it as “essentially ‘District 9' with bigger stars and less reason to exist. Which hardly means it’s terrible, just that it falls squarely into the dystopia-after-tomorrow genre so familiar from ‘Logan’s Run,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Gattaca,’ and (arguably the gold standard) 2006’s ‘Children of Men.’”
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, however, sees hope for the future. She writes, “‘Elysium’ doesn’t pack nearly the same startling punch [as ‘District 9'], and its political agenda is far more ham-handed, but Blomkamp shows that, along with such contemporaries as Rian Johnson (‘Looper’) and Duncan Jones (‘Moon,’ ‘Source Code’), he’s part of an innovative generation breathing new life into a time-honored genre.”