Directed by: Neill Blomkamp || Produced by: Neill Blomkamp, Bill Block, Simon Kinberg
Written by: Neill Blomkamp || Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Music by: Ryan Amon || Cinematography by: Trent Opaloch || Editing by: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith || Country: United States || Language: English, Spanish
Running Time: 109 minutes
Elysium has been on my radar for a long time for one reason and one reason only: It is written, directed, and co-produced by Canadian-South African filmmaker, Neill Blomkamp, director and co-writer of the 2009 independent sci-fi sociopolitical drama, District 9. District 9 (D9) became my favorite movie of that year and cemented itself with both critics and the masses as one of the best science-fiction films of the past decade. Its aggressive, intense action set-pieces, combined with its powerful, original screenplay courtesy of Blomkamp and wife Terri Tatchell, made the apartheid-analysis the surprise hit of the year, and overshadowed all other nominees at the 2010 Academy Awards (save for Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker ).
Whether Blomkamp will ever make a movie equal to or greater than D9 remains to be seen (Chappie  was a bust). With that said, does that mean Blomkamp’s sophomore effort is a poor film? Not at all! Elysium, preachy message and all, is a slick, well-designed, and intense sci-fi action romp that will make you fist-pump with every slow-motion rifle burst, robotic exoskeleton punch, and exploding human body.
Where Elysium comes up short in comparison to D9 is its hamfisted social commentary and simplistic characters. No matter how you look at it, Matt Damon’s cybernetic socialist-revolutionary can’t compare to Sharlto Copley’s experience in the slums of an alien concentration camp. Nor can Elysium’s simplistic analysis of social stratification rival D9‘s damning, yet complex criticism of government apartheid and private military contractors. Compared to even broader, more abrasive science-fiction political commentaries like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), or Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man (1993), Elysium’s premise — a near future earth is divided into the haves and the have-nots where only the former have access to live-saving healthcare technology — feels derivative and lazy. It is unclear how much of this slapdash metaphor is a function of Blomkmp’s screenplay or his translation of it to screen, but either way, it’s his fault. His approach to Elysium’s broader diegesis, its visual presentation, and refreshingly blunt violence are the sole yet significant reasons to see the film.
As far as action sequences are concerned, Blomkamp experiments with a variety of cinematographic techniques, slow-motion photography, and grounded special FX to create a colorful diaspora of cinematic violence. It’s an extension and evolution of D9‘s grimy sci-fi action, a hybridization of dieselpunk, cyberpunk, and biopunk aesthetics in the vein of Alien (1979) and Star Wars (1977). However, the real strength of Blomkamp’s latest action foray is its well rounded mix of gun-violence and abrasive close-quarters-combat. The contrasting visual styles of Elysium are impressive, adding visual variety to the film’s settings and tone. The titular space station’s sterile atmosphere and clean, high-tech interior contrast with a ruined, dystopian earth-landscape covered with a futuristic cultural melding pot of slums.
With regards to the cast, Matt Damon’s no slouch as the small-time car-thief turned blue-collar factory worker who transforms into earth’s savior. Alice Braga, though she has little to do as the unofficial female lead, plays her part well as the emotional motivation behind Damon’s character. Foster is the least impressive of the bunch, as she basically functions as a mustache-twirling villain.
Copley is a surprise hit as the primary antagonist of the movie. His character, as well as those of his henchmen, offer plentiful dark comic relief. Copley’s taunts of Damon in their final confrontation and evil henchmen tossing grenades at politicians while flipping them the bird are great examples of the film’s sardonic personality. Top to bottom, Elysium’s plot may feel by-the-numbers given its political overtones, but one thing Blomkamp has not forgotten is how to make a stylized film with personality and intelligence. Elysium may be big and flashy, but it’s not dumb.
Aside from Braga and Foster’s throwaway roles, Elysium’s major problem is the derivative nature of its theme. Elysium’s class-warfare story is hardly original and comes across rather preachy, and is nowhere as nuanced as D9 or even Snowpiercer (2013); then again, it’s hardly an Avatar (2009) or Dances with Wolves (1990) type of scenario, nor is it more heavy-handed than The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which everyone seemed to love. I’m not sure why so many critics are jumping down this film’s throat when normally they love this sort of lefty shift. Is it because it’s about a white guy saving all the minorities? Actually, it’s probably because this is film is an original intellectual property, has no franchise roots, is an R-rated action film, and isn’t trendy like Marvel films are, which always seem to manage “Fresh” ratings on Rottentomatoes no matter what they do. There, I said it.
For those of you waiting for Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the science-fiction success that was District 9, my recommendation is that you see Elysium if only for the action, while feeling free to tune out whenever the film takes its healthcare plot too seriously. Its style is worth your time and money, though its story and thematic pandering most certainly are not, regardless of political subtext. Elysium is a mixed bag, overall, but it is never boring nor unambitious with its cinematic presentation.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Elysium’s visceral, grisly action hits you with sledgehammer force and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Blomkamp weaves opposite visual styles together to create a seamless whole. Copley’s return as an evil, sardonic villain is the standout performance of the film.
— However… Braga and Foster are poorly used. Its story is simplistic and shallow a la Dark Knight Rises or Avatar, utilizing everything from lazy sci-fi plot devices to one-dimensional villains to manipulate its audience’s sympathies.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Blomkamp must like seeing humans explode, because there’s a shit-ton of that in both District 9 and Elysium.
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