By: Heather Seebach
In 2009, writer/director Neill Blomkamp made his feature debut with the fantastic sci-fi film, District 9. That movie combined poignant social-political commentary with great imagination and impressive visual FX. Now, four years later, his sophomore effort Elysium essentially has the same goal, but it's still one damn entertaining and imaginative sister feature to D9.
In the late 21st century, Earth has become overpopulated, diseased, and polluted to the point that its richest inhabitants have fled to a space-station known as Elysium. While the poorer classes are left to struggle and suffer down below, the wealthy enjoy comfort and the best medical treatment (including all-healing medical pods in every home). When Max, a blue-collar factory worker, gets seriously injured on the job, he does what he must to get to Elysium (hint: it involves an exoskeleton) and unwittingly becomes more important than he ever anticipated.
This film and District 9 are like two sides of the same coin, but they are not so similar that it feels lazy or worthy of dismissal. Basically, both involve an ordinary man forced to do something desperate to save his own life, and ultimately the lives of many. And in both, the key to his salvation lies with a hovering spacecraft, but that's grasping at straws. The two are more like parallel storylines that each address different social issues. D9 was very much about apartheid - an issue tied closely with Blomkamp's home of South Africa. The Los Angeles-based Elysium, on the other hand, deals with very current American issues like wealth distribution, healthcare, immigration, and workers' rights.
The films drips with commentary, right down to the details - like the fact that Max builds the very robots that serve the rich and (brutally) police the poor; or the suggestion of pills at a parole office to promote obedience in the lower classes. This much commentary is hardly new to sci-fi cinema, but Elysium's fun futuristic elements keep it from being too heavy-handed. Like its predecessor, this Blomkamp film has awesome new gadgets and guns, and once again the visual FX are flawless. I legitimately could not tell when Elysium was a physical set/model vs. computer-generated imagery. And I assume the robots are not men in suits but they damn sure look like it!
The film looks gritty and lovely, though one or two visual choices are questionable and stick out like a sore thumb. They felt a bit like Blomkamp or the DP were toying around for the hell of it. Despite that, it looks pretty damn cool. There are also occasional bursts of extreme, Rambo-level violence - often when you least expect it. The gore is fantastic, and it pulls NO punches. This movie boasts the coolest medpod scene since Prometheus (possibly even better), and I have no idea whether it was accomplished practically or digitally!
In the lead role of Max, Matt Damon fills the role fine, but I did not feel especially attached to him. I appreciate that his character, like Wikus in District 9, is a bit selfish and abrasive, but he was still too soft for my taste. I often found myself rooting for the bad guys - but perhaps that is my Sharlto Copley crush talking. As Kruger, the soldier-for-hire sent to capture Max, Copley is delightfully over-the-top. For some viewers, his kitana-wielding, uber-South-African baddie may be campy to a fault, but I loved him. Also chewing scenery is Jodie Foster as Elysium's shrewd Secretary of Defense. Her performance is a bit too weird, and I could never tell what accent she is going for. In fact, accents in general are an issue with this film - I think I missed 60% of the spoken lines. I look forward to those DVD subtitles!
I can see why some might fault Neill Blomkamp for not stepping very far outside his "comfort zone" with this latest project, but I see Elysium as a beautiful counterpart to District 9 - kind of like an alternate reality sequel. It's a fun movie packed with wow-worthy visuals and lots of surprise splatter for us gore-hounds. But I need not say more because you're still reading this, which means you probably already have a proverbial (if not literal) boner at the prospect of exosuits, ninja swords, robots with guns, and exploding bodies.
The DVD-only release includes two making-of featurettes: "Engineering Utopia" about how Elysium was created for the film, and "Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium." The former deals primarily with set design and visual FX, while the latter is full of entertaining behind-the-scenes footage of the actors. Damon and Copley are especially fun to watch play off each other on-set.
The Blu-ray release has more featurettes, including the stuff I wanted to see most - a more in-depth peek at the visual FX. I am dying to see how the robots and certain gore effects were created! The Blu-ray also includes production diaries, extended scenes, and an interactive exploration of the art and design of Elysium. If special features are your thing, I definitely recommend picking up the DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack available below:
Or you can get the DVD here: