Four years ago, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 made a surprisingly enormous splash, generating impressive box office numbers from its tiny budget and earning critical praise, leading to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Overnight, it turned Blomkamp into a talent to watch, heightening expectations for his inevitable follow-up endeavour. Luckily, 2013’s Elysium is another winner for the South African filmmaker, further showcasing his fertile creative vision which is this time supported by a more generous budget. Luckily, too, Blomkamp effortlessly recaptures the gritty visual aesthetic of District 9, on top of retaining his proclivity for delivering summer blockbusters permeated with intelligence and social commentary. It’s not quite as good as Blomkamp’s feature debut, but nothing much is. What matters is that Elysium is a solid motion picture in its own right, and a promising sophomore effort for the gifted director.

In the future, Earth has become a barren wasteland, desecrated by environmental catastrophe and gross overpopulation. The planet’s rich denizens – about 1% of the population – evacuate the Earth, travelling to the space station Elysium to continue their lives in luxury. Elysium is a man-made paradise, and its borders are ruthlessly controlled by defence secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Meanwhile, the other 99% of the Earth’s populace live in horrible conditions, policed by robotic enforcers and compelled to take dangerous jobs to sustain themselves. In Los Angeles, ex-con Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is trying to keep it together, working a 9-5 factory job while holding out hope that he will one day afford a trip to Elysium. In a workplace accident, Max is exposed to a deadly dose of radiation, leaving him with five days to live. His only chance for survival is on Elysium, as the space station’s advanced medical technology can heal him. Low on options, he agrees to carry out a dangerous job for crime lord Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for a trip to the off-world paradise. Outfitted with a mechanised exoskeleton, Max becomes involved in a bold plan to infiltrate Elysium and bring power back to the people, all the while being hunted by Delacourt’s ruthless Earth-based operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Like District 9, 2013’s Elysium is an allegorical action movie, using its futuristic setting to deliver an astute thesis on a contemporary issue. In this case, Blomkamp is concerned with immigration. Even though the lowly humans left on Earth are likely to be caught or killed if they attempt to reach Elysium, it doesn’t stop them from trying, climbing onto spaceships and hoping that said ships won’t be destroyed during the border-crossing. None of this is exactly subtle, but it does give the movie a degree of class. On top of this, Elysium comments on universal healthcare and the widening chasm between the wealthy and the poor. It’s nice to see such thoughtful material woven into the fabric of a blockbuster, and it’s even better that this is an entirely original sci-fi not based on any pre-existing material. Also remarkable about Blomkamp’s screenplay is that the filmmaker refuses to make Elysium a surface-level experience. None of the characters exist as plot pawns; they all have personalities and their own motivations, and everyone has an important role to play in the narrative. There are still a few things to nit-pick about the script, however. Most glaring is that Max needs to consume pills to keep him functioning properly, but he is rarely seen taking them.

In spite of the reported $120 million budget, Blomkamp was ostensibly given tremendous creative freedom for Elysium, as his vision remains bleak and vehemently R-rated. Blomkamp continues to display an interest in observing the effects of powerful sci-fi weaponry on the human body, with characters being blown apart in visceral ways. It’s great stuff. Elysium is a breathtaking picture to behold, as well, with imaginative production design across the board. It’s easy to find yourself immersed in Blomkamp’s elaborate sci-fi fantasy due to the sheer detail present in the technology, as well as the quality of the special effects which breathe convincing life into Blomkamp’s vision. The digital effects are seamless here – in fact it’s hard to tell what’s CGI and what’s practical. District 9‘s CGI was similarly stunning, and Elysium retains this high quality despite the bigger scale, once again showing that a director doesn’t need $250 million to create an effective FX-driven extravaganza. Furthermore, Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch give the picture a majestic feel, with sweeping shots that convey the grandeur of Elysium as well as the desolation of Earth. The photography is often shaky during the action scenes, but more often than not it helps to amplify excitement and intensity.

As Max, Damon further demonstrates his ability to portray both an action hero and a regular guy, giving us a charismatic and engaging anchor to latch onto. It’s a strong performance from the star, and it’s great to see Blomkamp coaxing such terrific work from A-list actors. Foster and Alice Braga are in fine form here as well, while Fichtner also makes a good impression. But the standout is easily Sharlto Copley, who’s borderline unrecognisable as Kruger. It’s hard to believe just how far removed Kruger is from his Copley’s role in District 9, showing that the performer has incredible range. And considering that Copley was not much of an actor before District 9, this is all the more impressive. He simply goes for broke here; it’s a menacing, enthralling performance, and Blomkamp supports him by giving the character a degree of smarts.

The only thing that holds Elysium back from brilliance is the fact that it feels too underdone. Sure, the whole thing is conceptually sound, but it would be nice to see more of the impressive tech (the exoskeleton feels like a missed opportunity), and to see and learn more about Elysium. The picture clocks in at 100 minutes, which is surprisingly scant – further expository scenes and character-building moments would have been valuable. It’s doubtful that a sequel will ever materialise due to the limp box office returns and the way the film ends, which is somewhat disappointing because a trilogy of motion pictures set in this universe would be absolutely killer. In final analysis, Elysium is not the masterpiece that it had the potential to be, but it is a refreshing late-summer gem which treats its audience with more respect than the usual blockbuster endeavour.