Film Review: ‘Elysium’

Elysium Movie Review

'District 9' writer-director Neill Blomkamp delivers a less dazzling but absorbing and intelligent bit of futurism.

So close and yet so far, the colony of Elysium hovers just outside Earth’s atmosphere, a mere 19-minute shuttle ride away but figurative light years for the downtrodden proletarian masses of the 22nd century. So begins the much-anticipated second feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose 2009 “District 9” was one of the few recent sci-fi/fantasy pics (along with “Inception” and “Children of Men”) that deserved to be called visionary. Here, Blomkamp delivers a less dazzling but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity. Result confirms the helmer as much more than a one-hit wunderkind and should easily surpass “District 9’s” $210 million worldwide haul, if not its massive profit margin.

Expectations can weigh heavily on a young director (Blomkamp is all of 33) who comes out of nowhere with an unexpected critical and commercial smash. But Blomkamp seems fully at ease and in control from the earliest scenes of “Elysium,” which introduce us to a futuristic Los Angeles (circa 2154) that has, in one of the film’s canniest conceits, effectively become Mexico City (where most of the pic was shot). The only apocalypse that happened here was an environmental and economic one, the rich having long ago decamped for their gated community in the sky, leaving the underclasses behind to breathe the polluted air and clamor over the scarce remaining resources. (The overhead shots of the filthy, teeming city, with billowing smoke drifting into a hazy pink sky, recall the opening images of “Blade Runner,” but with the overpopulated centers of the developing world as a template instead of Tokyo.)

Simmering or open class warfare has been a rich trope for sci-fi futurecasting as far back as Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis” and as recently as “In Time,” “Total Recall” and Michael Winterbottom’s fine, underseen “Code 46.” Lang’s influence is particularly evident in “Elysium’s” army of industrious worker bees slaving away on the factory floor of the Armadyne corporation, whose slithery CEO, Carlyle (William Fichtner), developed Elysium and all the technology that makes it run. One of those workers is Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief who used to dream that he might someday buy his own ticket to a better life, but now just keeps his head down and his nose to the grindstone.

Probably because he had a much larger budget and more studio oversight this time around, Blomkamp must have felt he had to craft a more traditionally heroic protagonist than “District 9’s” incompetent corporate lackey Wikus Van De Merwe, who owed his job to nepotism and found little sympathy on the homefront after being transformed into a mutant alien. Damon’s Max undergoes his own life-altering transformation early on in “Elysium,” doused at work with a toxic dose of radiation that leaves him with only a few days to live. But even before then, Max has a glint in his eyes that tells he’s the one who will somehow lead his people out of darkness.

Max also gets a fairly standard-issue love interest in the form of Frey (Alice Braga), a beneficent nurse who’s been sweet on him ever since their childhood days together in a Catholic orphanage. After years apart, she re-enters his life with a leukemia-stricken daughter in tow. Together, they all seek passage to Elysium, where every home comes equipped with a state-of-the-art healing bay that quite literally cures whatever ails you.

Even working within a more conventional framework, Blomkamp again proves to be a superb storyteller. He has a master’s sense of pacing, slowly immersing us into his future world rather than assailing us with nonstop action, and envisioning that world with an architect’s eye for the smallest details. Everything on Blomkamp and production designer Philip Ivey’s Earth seems built for functionality rather than aesthetics and looks slightly out-of-date, at best 21st-century technology still slogging along decades later, while Elysium is all curvilinear modernism, a triumph of form over function.

Blomkamp writes juicy characters, too, and then gives them grand, florid entrances. As Elysium’s bellicose defense secretary, Delacourt, Jodie Foster is first seen strutting through a poolside cocktail party speaking her perfect French and sporting a ramrod-straight posture that suggests her stiff white jacket was sent to the dry cleaners with her still inside. (Blomkamp and Foster seem to have envisaged the character as a Frankenstein version of Hillary Clinton.) Best of all is “District 9” alumnus Sharlto Copley as Delacourt’s Earthbound mercenary, Kruger, who speaks with a South African accent as thick as the fog on Table Mountain and carries himself with the hardy resolve of a cockroach after the Armageddon. He’s a psycho, but a psycho who seems to operate by his own inner logic, which makes him all the more terrifying and darkly funny.

As for Elysium itself, it remains largely an abstraction, glimpsed only fleetingly and from afar for much of the pic’s running time, during which it seems like a Kubrickian country club with an ineffectual puppet president (Faran Tahir) fully under Delacourt’s thumb. Instead, we spend most of our time on earth where Max, promised a ticket to Elysium by the Che-like revolutionary Spider (Brazilian thesp Wagner Moura, who has the fiery grandiloquence of the late Raul Julia), takes part in a botched kidnapping of Carlyle and ends up on the run from Kruger, one time bomb — the radiation — counting down in his bloodstream while another — classified data downloaded from Carlyle’s brain — ticks away in his skull. A more daring film might have risked putting a human (if not necessarily humane) face on the promised land’s privileged populace, but here they remain a vague, cocktail-partying blur — and, of course, that much easier to despise.

Easier, too, for “Elysium” to advance one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory, beating the drum loudly not just for universal healthcare, but for open borders, unconditional amnesty and the abolition of class distinctions as well. But Blomkamp never makes it clear how, if overpopulation and pollution are what got us into this mess in the first place, moving everyone up to Elysium would make for a sustainable solution; he just wants us to take it on faith that it would.

Yet if “Elysium” falls short as social commentary, as entertainment it rarely falters. The final act, a breathless cat-and-mouse game inside Elysium’s industrial core, Max and Kruger outfitted in mechanical suits that make them look like human Transformers, is at once the most straightforward stuff in the movie and the most exciting, mixing gritty hand-to-hand combat with touches of wuxia-style aerobatics. As in “District 9,” Blomkamp shows a wizardly eye for visual effects, making sure CG images have the proper movement and texture to blend seamlessly with live-action and practical elements. Other craft work is similarly first-rate, including tyro composer Ryan Amon’s judiciously used basso profondo score.

Film Review: 'Elysium'

Reviewed at Sony screening room, New York, July 29, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures presentation in association with Media Rights Capital of a QED Intl./Alphacore/Kinberg Genre production. Produced by Bill Block, Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg. Executive producer, Sue Baden-Powell.

Crew

Directed, written by Neill Blomkamp. Camera (color, Deluxe prints, Red Digital Cinema, widescreen), Trent Opaloch; editors, Julian Clarke, Lee Smith; music, Ryan Amon; music supervisor, Miz Gallacher; production designer, Philip Ivey; costume designer, April Ferry; supervising art director, Don Macaulay; art directors, Ross Dempster, Hania Robledo; set decorators, Peter Lando, Gabriela Matus Lopez; set designers, Nancy Brown, David Clarke, Mira Caveno; conceptual artist, Syd Mead; sound (Dolby Atmos/DTS/SDDS), David Husby; sound designer, Dave Whitehead; supervising sound editor, Craig Berkey; re-recording mixers, Christopher Scarabosio, Craig Berkey, Vince Renaud; visual effects supervisor, Peter Muyzers; visual effects producer, Shawn Walsh;  visual effects, Image Engine, Whiskytree, the Embassy, Method, Moving Picture Co., Industrial Light and Magic; specialty costume, weapons, props, special makeup effects and design, Weta Workshop; associate producer, Victoria Burkhart; stunt coordinator, Mike Mitchell; assistant director, James Bitonti; second unit director/camera, Simon Raby; casting, Francine Maisler. 

With

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir. (English, Spanish, French dialogue)

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 15

Leave a Reply

15 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Brian Hannan says:

    Come on! This film is awful. Who green-lights this stuff. I loved District 9 and am a big fan of Damon. The trailer made this film look much better than it is. But, really, we can do without grunge-fi. Where was the story? If it’s not enough that Damon has to save his own life, let him save a kid? And what film did Jodie Foster think she was in – The Queen? Too many subplots and not enough plot. The film looked as if it was written by a lower life-form. Can Hollywood please stop trying to save the planet? We liked it better when it was always blowing it up.

  2. ted says:

    What’s the target audience here five year olds?

  3. “Elysium” is implausible, because it’s based on a medical device manufacturer that does not employ any salespeople. http://danfromsquirrelhill.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/movie-review-elysium/

  4. “Elysium” is implausible, because it’s based on a medical device manufacturer that does not employ any salespeople. http://danfromsquirrelhill.wordpress.com/

  5. Mad Damon says:

    Funny. First Damon commands the unwashed to put their kids in public schools, then puts his in an elitist version. Now he plays an unwashed breaking into Elite World. What’s wrong with this picture?

  6. John says:

    Matt Damon would be wise to keep his political opinions to himself. I won’t support any movie he stars in, and won’t miss it.

    • Greg Cox says:

      ^ Who brought the ass-hat?? How about YOU keep your opinions about Damon’s opinions to yourself and just let the rest of us enjoy some solid sci-fi from a great storyteller.

      Exactly how large of a douche do you have to be to read a positive review of movie and be like ” Buh buh buh, Matt Damon, buh buh politics and I won’t buy a ticket!”?

      Seeing you think people are not entitled to opinions and the ability to speak there mind, here’s a big surprise for you, John… This movie isn’t for you so stay home and watch whichever cable news station has eroded your soul to the point that you cannot enjoy a piece of fiction without jamming your brainwashed down our throats,

      I for one will enjoy it that much more knowing some close-minded asshole didn’t take a good seat from a legitimate movie fan.

  7. cool.wish it to do well.

  8. Jay Wilson says:

    Read his interview in WIRED…all young visionaries have great things to say!

  9. hillplus says:

    And of course, those who really live on Elysium are not the job creators, the supposed 1%ers. It is government and Hollywood who truly live on Elysium right now.

  10. Mike S. says:

    “beating the drum loudly not just for universal healthcare”. Blomkamp is a South African living in Canada. Do you really think he just gave up a few years of his life to make a movie telling Americans to support universal healthcare? Maybe it’s not intended to be political or partisan in that way, and just reflects his own personal opinions given his multi-cultural background? I can see Americans are going to politicize this film into oblivion.

    • Funny that you should mention “oblivion”. The last paragraph of the review reads like several movies before in this so-called blockbuster season. The earth devastated by some apocalyptic off-camera preamble, and a hero with high-tech weaponry that in no way survivors can afford to produce, own or reload. Whatever the politics of the film (or filmmaker), this premise is shopworn, threadbare and just plain old.

  11. VinceThePrince says:

    I keep seeing people saying this is a near high budget remake of District 9. Like the character does the same stuff…gets sicks at work and needs to get to a large object in the sky to heal… so he pulls a heist involving his work… all kinds of other things lifted straight from D9. I was really looking forward to this… =(

More Film News from Variety

Loading