Elysium Film Review

Off-World Film Review: Elysium

August 11, 2013Ben MK

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You say you want a revolution ... well you know, Matt Damon's gonna change the world.

A dystopian future. A man named Max with nothing left to lose, set out on a path that will transform his destiny. No, it's not George Miller's Mad Max, it's Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. And it's the Summer blockbuster of 2013 that you've been waiting for.

Matt Damon channels a cybernetically-enhanced Bruce Willis
Six years after his last stint as Jason Bourne, Matt Damon returns to action hero territory in Neill Blomkamp's followup to his 2009 sleeper hit, District 9. Damon plays Max, a weary 22nd century ex-con turned factory worker, who receives a lethal dose of radiation during a workplace accident, leaving him with only 5 days to live. With his days now numbered (literally), his only hope for survival lies on Elysium, an off-world space station habitat for the planetary elite. Thanks to a local gangster named Spider (Wagner Moura), Max's body is outfitted with an exoskeleton suit, granting him superhuman strength. With his newfound abilities and aided by his friend, Julio (Diego Luna), Max sets out for Elysium. But before he can get there, he must carry out a job for Spider -- a risky data heist from the brain of the CEO of Armadyne (William Fichtner), the very corporation Max works for. Also standing between Max and his salvation on Elysium are its cutthroat Secretary of Defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has her own plans for the orbiting utopia, and a vicious mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Blomkamp borrows fragments from other science fiction films (both better and worse) to construct something that feels both futuristic and familiar. The concept of Elysium itself is something out of Blade Runner ("A new life awaits you on the off-world colonies"), and the design of Elysium itself is reminiscent of Space Station V, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The heisting of data by downloading it straight from one human brain to another has tinges of Johnny Mnemonic. And Armadyne, the corporation that builds the droids in the film, is a throwaway reference to the Cyberdyne corporation of the Terminator franchise. Even the aesthetic of the Earthbound scenes of the film are very much an extension of Blomkamp's own District 9. And much like that film, there is also a layer of social commentary underpinning the film -- concerning wealth, poverty, immigration and citizenship -- keeping the stakes identifiable.

Elysium is also a multi-layered film, plot-wise. There are multiple threads of storytelling that build up over the first two acts. Everyone in the film has their own agenda. Eventually, everything converges in the final act, and the stakes are revealed to be more world-changing than any of the players ever imagined. Blomkamp interweaves the plot points seamlessly, without interrupting the film's momentum or confusing audiences, and especially without dumbing anything down.

Matching the brains of the film is its brawn. Elysium is much more action-packed than District 9, although the action often comes in bursts rather than major, jaw-dropping set-pieces. There isn't any shortage of exploding ships, robots or bodies. The big surprise here is Sharlto Copley, whose mercenary character Kruger is a far cry from the meek Wikus Van De Merwe he played in District 9. Copley is a tour de force -- a psychotic, unpredictable and unstoppable killing machine -- and he proves to be the most formidable adversary Damon's character, Max, will ever face. He even rivals Benedict Cumberbatch's character from Star Trek Into Darkness as the best villain of Summer 2013's box office batch.

Visually, the film eschews the off-and-on, pseudo-documentary style of District 9 in favor of a big budget blockbuster look throughout. Scenes set on Earth are clearly delineated from scenes on Elysium by their gritty earth tones versus the cold, clean and clinical look of life on Elysium. It's nothing we haven't seen before in the genre (as in Serenity, for example), but the visual design of the film is slick and the effects are well-executed. 

The Bottom Line

Elysium may be a late entry in the Summer 2013 box office race, but it takes the crown as the Summer blockbuster to see. Although it's not as wholly original as some of the hype has made it out to be, what director Neill Blomkamp has constructed is more than the sum of its parts. The film is an amalgam of the ideas that constitute good, intelligent science fiction, underpinned by themes relevant to today's society, and bolstered by explosive action sequences. It's brains and brawn, all wrapped up in one package, and it deserves to be seen in theaters. [★★★★½]

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