Movie Review – Elysium

This bristling follow-up feature for District 9 director Neill Blomkamp can’t recapture the zenith of his debut, but as a stand-alone sci-fi actioner in its own right, Elysium delivers an energetic, visually stunning glimpse into a possible future that’s as bleak as it is believable.


– Summary –

Director :  Neill Blomkamp
Year Of Release :   2013
Principal Cast :  Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copely, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Faran Tahir.
Approx Running Time :  109 Minutes
Synopsis:   In the distant future, the majority of humanity lives on the surface of a wasteland Earth, while the rich and elite live in an orbiting habitat known as Elysium. One man, who only has days to live, find himself the unlikely hero in a battle for the lives of everyone on the planet.
What we think :  This bristling follow-up feature for District 9 director Neill Blomkamp can’t recapture the zenith of his debut, but as a stand-alone sci-fi actioner in its own right, Elysium delivers an energetic, visually stunning glimpse into a possible future that’s as bleak as it is believable.


 This is the district where everyone wants to live.

I, like most, was transfixed with Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9. As a piece of science fiction, it hit all the right notes, delivered some truly spectacular visuals, and became one of the best films of the last decade. As with everything, the expectation for any follow-up was always bound to be enormous, and so Elysium came with all the baggage attached to any project attempting to leapfrog a super-successful movie like District 9. Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking Blomkamp never had a chance, and I suspect to a lot of critics that was always going to be the case – did you, like I, watch Elysium with thoughts of District 9 running through your head, comparing and contrasting the two films, second-guessing Blomkamp’s decisions with his sophomore effort and how it could have been… better? It’s only natural, I guess, but an effort wasted – Elysium is not District 9.2. Therefore, we head into this review unburdened by others’ predilection for comparison – this is a straight-up review of Elysium.

My, that's a big ship. That ship is big. (Casual ThumbWars reference.)
My, that’s a big ship. That ship is big. (Casual ThumbWars reference.)

Synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: In 2154, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a luxurious Stanford Torus-style space station called Elysium, and the poor who live on an overpopulated, devastated Earth. While residents on Earth are policed by ruthless robots, Elysium’s citizens live in comfort and regularly use bed-sized medical devices called Med-Bays to keep them free of disease and injury. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former car thief and parolee, lives in the ruins of Los Angeles and works at an assembly line for Armadyne Corp, the military company that supplies arms and weapons to Elysium. An accident at the plant exposes Max to a lethal dose of radiation, giving him only five days to live. Meanwhile, when a caravan of illegal immigrants from Earth attempts to reach Elysium and its Med-Bays, Elysian Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) orders vicious mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot down the shuttles. Disapproving of her methods, Elysian President Patel (Faran Tahir) reprimands her and dismisses Kruger from service. Delacourt, vowing to protect Elysium and her own power, bargains with Armadyne’s CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner) to write a program that can override Elysium’s central computer and make her President. Carlyle creates the program in his office on Earth and uploads it to his brain for safekeeping, encrypting it with a lethal denial system. Max, knowing his only chance for survival is a Med-Bay, seeks help from notorious smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura), with the assistance of his friend Julio (Diego Luna). Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium only if he helps him steal valuable financial information from Carlyle, who is preparing to leave Earth. Recognizing Max’s weakened condition, Spider has his doctors implant Max with a powered exoskeleton, giving him superhuman strength, as well as an implant in his brain that can store computer data. Max, Julio and a team of Spider’s men intercept Carlyle’s ship, and Max downloads the data (including the program) to his own brain. However, due to the encryption of Carlyle’s brain data the information appears unusable. With an opportunity to finally get to Elysium, Max offers himself up as a hostage to Kruger; on Elysium, Max must make a decision that will cause a power play for the future of both Earth and Elysium.

This! This is what makes you a human, Matt. This!!
This! This is what makes you a human, Matt. This!!

Blomkamp has pulled out all the stops with Elysium. Visually, narratively, musically and cinematically, Elysium is damn near perfect science fiction. It’s not perfect, but it comes breathtakingly close. And breathtakingly close is wonderful indeed. Blomkamp has crafted a world that could exist in the future, with the class war currently being waged around Earth in this millennium, it’s only too easy to imagine a set-up like Elysium being the offspring of the current financial and societal gulfs opening only wider as our world becomes smaller. There is an inherent injustice at work in Elysium, an injustice driving the narrative from its opening frame to the closing: all people, of any ethnic, religious or social background, are equal. Should be equal. Elysium takes that to the maximum, showing us an elitist class living it up at the expense of the majority, cast down to live their wastrel lives on a ruined Earth. Elysium’s the very antithesis of everything Star Trek: in Roddenberry’s world, inequality is stamped out, and everyone is on an even playing field, yet here in Elysium, the class system (citizens) has broadened beyond the very surface of our world, and into space itself.

Some might say I "carry" this film....
Some might say I “carry” this film….

Elysium might not be an original story, or even deal with original ideas – hell, the “everyone is equal” narrative has been nearly done to death in sci-fi over the years – but thanks to the definite style and sense of reality Blomkamp gives this film, it certainly feels a little fresher than it should. The film is broad in scope, yet feels rather intimate in nature due to a relatively smallish cast of major players, all of whom deliver above and beyond for this film. But the story, the characters in the story, supersede the flashy visual effects (and they are flashy in parts) and Blomkamp’s script engages the viewer and puts us right at ground zero for the battle over humanity. The balance Blomkamp is able to give his story, with the demands of character and complementary action sequences, is impeccable, nearly faultless – none of the characters in this story are without some kind of background, some kind of weight to their motivations, which could easily have been lost amongst the aforementioned flashy visuals, which only makes Elysium all that more engaging. We’re with Max as he is irradiated and left to die, we’re with Delacort as she tries to protect Elysium from what she sees as human trash trying to upset her precious world (this isn’t to say I agree with her, but Blomkamp makes her motivations clear), and we’re with the Earth-bound rebels fighting to give us all a chance to live in peace; Elysium is a film which delivers the human aspect of the scenario with precision, free from saccharine pandering and obviousness, and while the story does have some moments of cliche – nay, genre convention – there’s enough going on here to overlook some familiarity.

Whatever language I'm speaking, sometimes it's not actually a language.
Whatever language I’m speaking, sometimes it’s not actually a language.

Matt Damon, as Max, is a typical blue-collar bum, an ex-con trying to make a life for himself. You just know how that’s gonna turn out, though. Damon, an actor I’ve always though to be better than he often is in most films, provides solid leading material, his desperation to survive, mixed with his dedication to making a change for the better is the very center of Max’s soul, and I think he nails it. Alice Braga, as Frey, has her own arc – her daughter’s life – and she’s eminently commendable for providing a strong female voice amongst all the sci-fi goings on. Jodie Foster, herself a female voice but a very weirdly accented one, is suitably menacing and abhorrent as Delacort, although I did think of all the characters in the film, hers was the least accessible in terms of motivation. Sharlto Copley’s Kruger is a pure psychopath, loving nothing better than to inflict pain and death (and he does it well), with Copley’s natural South African accent making him seem all that more horrific as a human being. Supporting cast in Diego Luna, as one of Max’s friends, and Wagner Moura, as local rebel leader-slash-criminal, Spider, provide solid backup.

Is.... there something in my eye?
Is…. there something in my eye?

Technically, I can’t go past the visual style Elysium brings to the table. From the grim, gritty wasteland of Earth, to the glittering, glimmering, garden-ensconced world of Elysium, and all in between, Elysium looks amazing. Trent Opaloch’s dirty, grimy Earth-bound cinematography drops you smack into the world this film presents, and slaps you upside the head with it. Elysium, for all its Apple-store-inspired smoothness and antiseptic production design, provides an opulent counterpoint to the surface world’s horrors, and Opaloch captures this dichotomy really well. His lighting, lensing and use of color here is superb. The visual effects, the CG enhancements Blomkamp uses to enlarge his cinematic vision, are superb, fitting seamlessly into the frame and never once sticking out as being phony or “digital”; Blomkamp’s decision to go with newbie composer Ryan Amon is bold, and it pays off. Amon’s soundtrack to this film is excellent, recalling a mid-2000’s Hans Zimmer (only less brassy), and I definitely think it’s one I’ll be listening to on the iPod for a while yet. There’s not a fault to be found with the technical aspects of this film.

Crash. Bam. Thwack!
Crash. Bam. Thwack!

As mentioned, Elysium is a film filled with sci-fi tropes that have been explored in previous films and television serials. The social commentary and desire for humanity to be on an even playing field, reducing to zero the “them and us” mentality of a broken system, is as old as sci-fi itself. But it’s the way Blomkamp tells it, the way he frames it and shunts us into a violent, desperate world that craves resolution, is what makes Elysium so potent. Pick flaws all you like, but the man’s visual acumen cannot be faulted; it’s only a matter of time before one of his films finds its way into Oscar contention in years to come. He writes great material, films it well, and in this instance, has crafted yet another brilliant movie. Elysium should be on your list of 2013 films to make sure you see.




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3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Elysium

  1. Happy to see you also enjoyed it. It has been getting a lot of negative reviews but I really thought it was an entertaining movie. Surely it does not compare favorably to District 9, but it was a lot of fun and I loved Copley in this…actually hoped he would win 😉

    1. Ha ha, I'd love to see a spin-off film featuring just Copley's character (perhaps a prequel?) before the events of Elysium…. That would be cool, I think.

      I'm not entirely sure why Elysium snagged a whole bunch of negative reviews – the story is solid, the visuals are superb and the scripting is largely excellent – perhaps it's people trying to drag Blomkamp down for some reason…. I'm not sure. All I know is, I loved it.

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