Elysium (2013) Theatrical review

What You May Like:

  • Stellar direction
  • Superb and downright seamless special effects
  • Excellently hate-worthy villains

What You May Not:

  • Jodie Foster’s cheesy accent and only standard performance
  • Social commentary could have been stronger
  • Matt Damon deserves more characterization

What You’ll Remember:

  • Damon’s bio-mechanical direct-download-to-cerebrum strengthening future armor

Back in 2009, South Africa hailing director Neill Blomkamp broke through to the American film public with his sci-fi action drama District 9; a film known more for its intelligently implemented and boisterously voiced social commentary on modern socioeconomic classes as well as their possible future repercussions over its intensity, yet with enough of a fast-paced story, breakthrough special effects action, and deeply invested characters to match wits with its science fiction peers to make it one of the more standout films in its genre of the last decade. In similar fashion, with significantly reflective directorial choices comes Blomkamp’s latest epic in what may be becoming a welcome habit in socially relevant storytelling, Elysium. Starring A-listers Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, as well as the main protagonist from District 9, Sharlto Copley, portraying the star villain, Blomkamp nearly matches wits entirely as his last Hollywood breakthrough, if trading some more real-world parallel commentary for a greater dose of stunning visual theatrics, yet still maintaining just as much equal entertainment value all the way around.

Elysium takes place in the middle of the 22nd century – the year 2154 if your grinch truly’s memory serves correct – where the world has become a completely segregated, corrupt, and dangerously overpopulated place to inhabit. Therefore, to maintain humanity’s typical lifestyle of soulless vanity, the most wealthy and distinguished citizens of Earth have built a space station land of sorts in outer space, named Elysium, at a distance relatively similar to that of the moon’s. In Elysium, the rich can still maintain their luxurious lifestyles with no disturbance from the suffering poor. The rich’s lands are beautifully clean, profoundly comfortable, and a place where any human physical flaws or illnesses of any sort can be instantly cured by small medical bays conveniently set in one’s own home in less than a minute’s time. Back on Earth, with our story centralized in Los Angeles, citizens live in shacks practically mounted on top of one another, plant life is virtually non-existent, an abusive military robotic police force has all humans on a fearful leash, and hordes of the population are starving, sick and dying of various illnesses. Here we meet Matt Damon who plays Max, a young parolee who is stuck in a dangerous factory job which produces more robot police units. Having dreamed of moving to Elysium as a young boy, Max’s story gets set in motion due to an accident at his workplace which puts his life in fatal danger. Getting back into contact with some of the hacker/future mafia rebellion movement Max used to work for, who now specializes in illegal immigration to Elysium, he is given a proposition by his former boss to hijack sensitive and confidential information as a trade-off to illegally enter Elysium. The sensitive information is held by an informant (William Fichtner) working for Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who is an Elysium political frontrunner who gets into some hot water with her superiors and devises a plan for greater power over the utopian space station. Now aside from Max is his female childhood best friend Frey, played by Alice Braga, a girl who grew up in the ruins along with Max, as sporadic flashback scenes tell us. Currently as an adult working as a nurse in a grossly understaffed and constantly busy ER, the two come back into contact, separated long years due to their dire circumstances. Along with many other sick, Frey’s young daughter is stricken with leukemia, for which the cancer’s final stages warrant Frey’s desire to get her to Elysium.

Aside from this initial cast, the previous main protagonist from District 9, Sharlto Copley, plays Kruger, a resident rogue “sleeper agent” of Los Angeles who is also under Delacourt’s orders to serve as a sole police force on Earth who can take care of much of the dirty work Delacourt requires, yet can still safely maintain under the radar of the Elysium political hierarchy. While his initial actions under Delacourt gets her to bump heads with her superiors, she then assigns Kruger to go after Max when he later holds some valuable information that has the potential to drastically change the course of history and both the rich and poor classes way of life.

Matt Damon has no problem tackling the sci-fi role, as from his plentiful Bourne Identity experience one can see that at this point he can not only take care of more emotionally driven scenes, but flex his combative and gun-toting muscles with the likes of other modern-day action stars, if not, satisfyingly moreso; being a star whose characters give you just the right mix of humility, confidence, fearlessness, and quiet determination, Damon successfully drives what works with Max, bringing Elysium a unique tone that other action stars would never have achieved in the film’s tonality intentions. That being said, while Damon doesn’t necessarily steal top bill here it mostly has to do with Max’s overall character arc, which although backed up by only a few childhood flashbacks, is unfortunately not given enough background as a grown man for the audience to care about him as much as they’d actually want to, which leads to one of the film’s more picky quips. Thanks to a few minor co-stars, such as his ex-boss hacker Spider (Wagner Moura) and best friend Julio (Diego Luna), who draw enough compassion from us rather quickly due to their friendship and loyalty to Max, Damon’s character is brought out to better life and helps Elysium establish itself rather firmly in the storyline department. Early on, it can be seen that Blomkamp has other intentions in mind with Elysium that stretch his action directorial muscles significantly more than District 9, and like his previous work’s prime focus on character compassion and a real world social message, Elysium is much more satisfied at keeping its tone as a gritty sci-fi action powerhouse, and it works to great benefit for its audience thanks to some of the most realistic and beautifully crafted mix of CGI, props, and explosive special effects to come in the last decade, even more than some of its best action films such as The Avengers¬†and well, District 9. Such great ideas on screen here only multiply in magnitude once Max puts on the staple killer app of Elysium, that being his bio-mechanical suit which drills directly into his nervous system, systematically altering not only his brain capacity but also his physical strength and capabilities. Easily one of the best ideas in action films to come around in a very long time.

Now, many viewers may notice the intense visual similarities between this and Blomkamp’s previous epic sci-fi breakthrough, as not only is the cinematography in the same style, but the setting itself is in fact so similar that it almost seems as if after District 9‘s production shooting was wrapped up Elysium‘s crew moved directly in right after, complete with home sets and props and began filming. For Blomkamp to do a third film in the same light may come with the risk of pigeon-holing himself, even if the film meets or surpasses this one in level of quality.

So while the action visual spectacles are wonderfully fulfilling thanks to smart use of cameras angles and talented editing as well as other technical effects, the social message (or prospects of it) most expected from Blomkamp is somewhat unfortunately underutilized, similar to the character of Max not being given better background detail. Yet, one can argue there is not much to delegate about in the struggles of the poorer working classes vs. the advantages luxuries of the wealthy upper class, but Blomkamp could have very well fit even a smidget more in relation to our current political affairs, as there would not have been any danger in placing equal focus on story significance and action set-pieces. The fact that the vast majority of the film actually doesn’t take place on the Elysium space station but here on Earth, one can see how a further extension of more main characters in the wealthy class could have brought a bit more to what the script of Elysium had to play with. Yet as we have it, the rich play as nothing more than cardboard stand-ins, none of whom in the general public are ever highlighted in the slightest. Again, just another mild complaint. Yet what Blomkamp does with the action set-pieces here is nothing short of fantastic. Just like the alien beings in District 9, the robot droid police force on Earth look and move so realistically, and work with the on-screen actors with such seamless fluidity that it is almost like the filmmakers built actual living and functioning androids driven by real actors, or even just on their own. They are brought to shine mostly during the physical altercations and gunfights, along with the flying craft machines which switch from CGI to real life props with a brilliant efficiency that is virtually unnoticeable by the human eye. Given the environmental desolate dirtland settings of the film, such a future world perspective can hit pretty close to home, giving the audience something much closer to relate to than the purposefully plastic superficial scenery of the coveted world of Elysium.

Rounding off the most important aspects of the film is those of our two main vilains – Delacourt and rogue agent Kruger. both of which do their fair share of heartless and fatal actions towards the innocent public and protagonists, more than enough suited to elicit fuller cheers for good to prevail, yet maybe perhaps not counting the actual real life wealthy one-percent to whom this film may not completely register in the compassion or relatability departments. While Delacourt displays a completely unforgivable cold-heartedness towards any people not in line with her plans for more absolute power, it is merely her scripted actions which make this character so wretched to us, not the actress Jodie Foster herself. Perhaps being the one major downpoint to the film (shockingly, I agree, as it is the one and only academy award winning Jodie Foster), Delacourt is a character of French decent given it her primary language, whereas English she speaks with a French accent; it being a fairly to sometimes very poor job of an accent when in use. As interesting as it is being that in Elysium citizens are presented to mostly follow French and English as primary languages whereas those on Earth are in large majority dark-skinned and follow mostly Spanish and English, it would have made sense that any actors used to represent this atmospheric point be believable as such. With Foster at the helm of a character, it simply is not, as her performance really could have been done by just about anybody, and some who may have given us an accent that is not at sometimes downright laughably inconsistent. The redeeming factor here is that even with these flaws she still pulls off all that is necessary to make for a good villain. But in Elysium, the absolute show stealer here is the grander villain in the form of Krugar. Not only is Copley’s performance impeccably evil and brutally fearless, but throughout most of the film his relationship with Max plays off almost equal to the level of Batman and Bane from The Dark Knight Rises – an antagonist who displays all physical and motivational ability to truly threaten and potentially destroy the protagonist, in such a way that the hero’s well-being becomes grippingly realistic to the audience. Now when you factor in Max’s love for his childhood friend Frey and her sick daughter, as well as the potential to change the world, you get a film conflict that towards its conclusion gets you gradually more involved the longer the movie runs. It is somewhat of a disappointment then when the film eventually does end, as it will likely leave you clamoring for more, which is in itself a credit to the film. Recall those small quips previously mentioned? Lack of well-deserved characterization for Max, lack of exploration of any characters at all in the world of Elysium or the origins of Elysium itself? Even the starter implications in taking the relationship between Frey and Max to heightened friendship and/or romantic levels, Elysium could have very well have surpassed its somewhat disappointing 1 hour and 50 minute time length. Since there will likely be no sequel here, giving this film even a 2 and a half hour running time, if suggested plot extensions had been appropriately laid out, could Elysium¬†have been much more satisfying than it stands. Yet make no mistake, what is actually here is excellent, mostly counting in pacing, editing, storytelling, villains, ideas, and superbly impressive special effects. There is no doubt that what has been created will harbor enough respectability and admiration even if such greater exposure comes in its blu-ray release. Thankfully, Blomkamp veered away from a 3D film, as it was entirely unnecessary.

Final Verdict:

Blomkamp has undoubtedly crafted one of the best sci-fi action films of the year. Never is his style glossy, boastful, or overly saturated with forcefully artistic intentions. It is obvious from the film that Blomkamp garnered great inspiration from his previous vision of a desolate and apocalyptic future, thought to extend the idea with a greater focus on technical marvels as opposed to just rehashing the same social commentary he may have already said his peace in. Keep in mind whether you are focused on sociological subtle messages or epically entertaining special effects and stylized violence, one does not necessarily trump the other but rather the style, passion and quality of filmmaking and writing make the decision. In both films Blomkamp cares about characters and emotional relevance, and while some may disagree with his current choice of not making messages and characterization his primary narrowed focus, others would agree that District 9‘s dramatics may have become a bit too contrived, elongated, and even fuzzy or incoherent at certain points. That being said, neither film seems necessarily better than the other, but just tailored towards different plot ideas, focuses and personal taste. In the end, such experimentation should be encouraged. Elysium does contain enough minor setbacks to overall lower its grade, and the greater potential for a landmark film do become more noticeable once analyzed to a certain degree, but as a stand-alone project, Elysium is a very solid and strong testament to what science fiction could be, and Blomkamp’s projects in the genre do more than enough to inspire great modern ideas to the likes of what The Matrix did for action filmmaking in the late 1990s. The story is incredibly relatable and disturbingly down to earth, with action set-pieces that will blow audiences out of their seats given the quality of direction alone. So much in fact that even non-science fiction fans looking for a great popcorn flick will get their full money’s worth; and while the term “popcorn flick” may seem something made up of cheap temporary thrills, it is still a description Elysium has a tendency to fall towards into at certain, but definitely not all, aspects. Whether one sees that description as a negative, there is simply no denying how grandly entertaining and intelligent Elysium actually is. While just a few hairs short of a modern classic, there is no doubting the talent and quality behind what the film does showcase for sci-fi fans. Therefore for both fans and non-fans of the genre, I would rate this as a strong 3 med bays out of 4.