Elysium (2013) Movie Review “A Good But Not Perfect Science Fiction Tale”

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Continuing is my set of reviews for Neil Blomkamp’s directorial work (all two of them) leading up to the new release “Chappie”.  We’ve already covered Blomkamp’s directorial debut (in “District 9”) and now we move on to his follow up, “Elysium”.

Hot off the heels of his incredibly impressive debut, Neil Blomkamp parted ways with Peter Jackson as both went on to pursue other projects (we all know what Peter “Middle Earth” Jackson ended up doing).  Blomkamp meanwhile went on to produce, write and direct his newest original project, “Elysium”.  Expectations were high for this young director’s second project, but could he deliver?  For the most part, sure “Elysium” is a good science fiction film with an excellent third act and beautiful striking visuals.  This does fall short however of the heights of “District 9” with a bit of hit and miss script and some less than interesting characters.  “Elysium” does have some interesting world creation and some timely social commentary (albeit less than subtle). This is a good film and one that actually gets better the more you watch it.

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In the year 2145, Earth has become an over populated settlement, transforming the once great city of Los Angeles to a dirty slum.  Jobs are hard to come by, and the world is ruled through an oppressive police force.  The rich however have escape to the sanctuary of space in a large ring shaped space station called Elysium.  In that station they live a life of luxury, longevity and peace.   Back on Earth, a normal everyday worker has been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that will kill him in five days and the only way for him to get cured is on Elysium.

As a concept “Elysium” sounds very interesting.  It’s nothing new or revolutionary, the rich versus the poor is a common theme that has been presented throughout history.  Only this time there is a literally visual metaphor; with the ruling higher class literally ruling high above everyone else in space.  Of course this comes at a time when class warfare did seem at the forefront in our society and in our news media.  Not far removed from the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the recession that many Americas fell victim too.

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Much like “District 9”, “Elysium” does have social commentary present throughout the film.  Unlike “District 9” however Neil Blomkamp’s own personal voice does get a bit preachy.   Some of the commentary of police brutality is handled with a more subtle care. But, Blomkamp does sometimes pound you over the head with the class warfare and corporate commentary.   Upon first viewing it might be a bit much but surprisingly upon the second viewing it isn’t as painful. But, never the less Blomkamp’s personal voice is put at the forefront and whether you agree with those issues or not it is nice to see an artist with a voice.

Although there are some great concepts and moments in the script it could have used some fleshing out.  The characters don’t develop enough by the end, the first act feels a bit rushed and at some moments this does feel like a “District 9” remix.  Both movies have very similar archetypes, character setups, and plots.  That could have to do with both movies dealing with similar themes but sometimes there is a bit of redundancy.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since you’re not required to watch “District 9”; so the familiarity between the two films will bother some, but not all.  I choose to see it more as a director presenting recurring themes in a different fashion as a part of his work. ( Lord knows almost every single one of Woody Allen’s movies you have a character dealing with the fear of death), so some of derivative moments can be overlooked depending how you view them.

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For a movie called “Elysium”, not a lot of this movie takes place on Elysium.  The majority of it takes places on the slums of Earth.  However, both areas do have their own filmmaking styles.  While on Earth, the movie feels more dirty, and choppy; on Elysium the camera moves much more smoothly with graceful pans and dolly movements.  So in effect Blomkamp gives each setting its own identity.  I would like to have seen more of the movie take place on Elysium however.

When the movie finally gets to Elysium it fires on all cylinders.  The filmmaking is top notch, the acting elevates, the tension feels palpable, the action is intense, and the story finally feels as a whole engaging.  This takes place over the course of the third act which is easily becomes the best part of the movie.  The first two where most of the action takes place on Earth is decent, but once we get onto Elysium we start to get much (closer) to the realm of “District 9” good.  Perhaps if the movie shifted its focus more towards Elysium it could have benefited the movie more as a whole.

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Matt Damon plays the lead role of Max (a role originally offered to rap super-star Eminem); Damon is very capable in these types of roles.  He is sarcastic when he wants to be, an action hero when he needs to be, and give emotional cues when the script requires it of him.  A very solid performance in the grand scheme of things.  Alice Braga could not be more bland as his romantic love interest.  Grant you the story doesn’t give her much to, and only acts as an extra part of motivation for Max (and even disappears for a long period of time in the first two acts of the film).  Her chemistry with Damon is greatly lacking, and just about any actress could have played her role.  Sharlto Copley chews the scenery as one of the chew baddies and is undeniably fun; very memorable if not otherwise pretty over the top. Jodie Foster is surprisingly bland as the main baddie on Elysium who plans on staging a coup to gain total power.  She is functional, good, not bad just very one note and forgettable.  That’s all coming from an Oscar level caliber actress so in that regard it’s a bit disappointing.

From a technical level this movie is superb.  I recently re-watched on Blu-Ray with 5.1 Digital Surround Sound Speakers and I was overly impressed.  Blomkamp did a great job with his production level and visual effects on just a 30 million dollar budget (with “District 9”).  Here on a 115 million dollar budget the movie is a technical marvel.  The visuals are jaw dropping,  and stunning.   Even the sound design is a marvel to the ears.  If this is the reason why you’re going to the see the movie, then this does not disappoint.  (On a side note who else thought of “Halo” when they saw the ring world of Elysium?)

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As a follow up to “District 9” this is a bit of a step backwards for director Neil Blomkamp.  Of course this does have to do with expectations as well.  This movie did improve with multiple viewings for me personally.   This is a very enjoyable watch (that does get a bit too preachy) but still manages to entertain especially in the third act of the movie.  It could have been a lot better but still good.

Final Score

6.5/10

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