Elysium (2013)
By: Stuart Giesel on February 17, 2014 | Comments
Universal Sony | Region Free | 2.40:1, 1080p | English DTS HD MA 7.1 | minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Country: USA
In Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to his critically-lauded and commercially-successful District 9, he gives us another socially-conscious science-fiction spectacle containing many of the same elements that District 9 successfully balanced to great effect: hardcore action with gory, body-exploding violence; dusty, run-down slums; nice, weathered ships reminiscent of the original Star Wars; androids and battle-armour that actually looked authentic and useable rather than just "cool" for cinematic purposes; seriously heavy firepower. However, Elysium's moralising plot (and many plot-holes) get in the way of the sort of giddy enjoyment that District 9 offered.

We start in the Los Angeles of 2154, where everything's fucked. The planet is overpopulated, overwhelmed and under-resourced. You're lucky if you have a job, and even if you do, as in the case of Max (Matt Damon), you're scarcely able to keep it, such is the competition. And health care? Forget it. The only people who have any sort of a decent, comfortable life are those who live on the utopian ring-world Elysium that circles over Earth like a giant arsehole perpetually winking at Earth's inhabitants saying nah-nah-nah-you-can't-live-here. Max wants to live there; in fact, it's been a dream of his all his life, or at least ever since he promised childhood friend and sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga) that he will take her there. As an adult, Max has had his run-ins with the law, but is trying to play things straight these days, at least until he suffers a horrible radiation-related injury at work. Discovering he has only days to live, his only chance at survival is getting to Elysium and using one of the whiz-bang cure-all automated healing chambers that every Elysium citizen has access to. With the aid of dodgy crook Spider (Wagner Moura) and his best bud Julio (Diego Luna), Max goes after massive dickwad CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who is Max's ticket to Elysium. Turns out that Carlyle is in league with the defence minister of Elysium, Delacourt (Jodie Foster). But Delacourt has an ace in her sleeve in the form of the cruel and violent mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Essentially, Elysium follows Max's attempt to get to the utopian society of the title, although much of the screentime - honestly, more than I was expecting - is spent in the shit-hole Los Angeles, which is brown and windswept and whose population is practically all comprised of Latinos, some of whom make almost suicidal attempts to leave the planet and crash-land on Elysium in the hope of a better life. Yes, Neill, we get it. Elysium is your commentary on the state of USA-Mexico border policy, as well as on the apparent 1% of people who "have it all" versus the rest of us who have to fight for the scraps left over. Now, don't get me wrong - this sort of commentary or subtext is fine for any film, let alone a sci-fi film. But the obvious way that the script hammers home this message would make George Romero blush. When we finally get to Elysium, you might think that the film settles down for some bloody carnage, and whilst we do get a few choice moments - including an excellent if tantalisingly short scene involving the use of these wonderful ChemRail guns - the crux of the story revolves around a choice that Max has to make. Without going into too much detail, it's another of those "sacrifice yourself and save the world or do the other thing that no hero would ever consider doing" choices. It's a bit of a shame, because up until then Elysium's world feels nicely fleshed out - with Copley's unhinged but weirdly charismatic Kruger being the clear standout - and the film could have been so much more if it hadn't resorted to the usual heroic tropes that often populate modern action films. We get the sense at the start of the film that the character of Max is a criminal - or at the very least a shady guy - who's trying to make something of himself, but that he still carries this dangerous, anti-establishment edge. But this potentially interesting characterisation gets jettisoned as soon as the action starts. The choices that Max are given aren't really choices at all - you could argue that if he wasn't in such dire straits then there wouldn't have been much of a movie to follow, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

For risk of suggesting that Elysium is a total bust, let me add that whilst this is no District 9, Blomkamp still proves himself to be more of a visual craftsman and skilful director than most directors in Hollywood. The film looks amazing, from the barren wastes and cramped slums of LA to the glorious, pristine stretches of Elysium. The CGI is absolutely seamless, and the vehicles, ships and androids look authentic because they appear scratched, dusty and used. There's no Star Wars I-III shenanigans here. Editing is razor-sharp, and although Blomkamp over-indulges in shaky-cam here and there, the action is easy to follow and bereft of the gimmicky tricks that certain directors try to infuse into their flicks to make things appear more exciting than they actually are - although there is one brief moment during the end-fight in which Blomkamp falls into this trap.

Considering the pedigree of the cast, however, performances are a mixed-bag. Matt Damon is just "Matt Damon" enough to please his fans, and not too much "Matt Damon" to put everyone else off. It's a serviceable performance, but he looks the part and suits the action well enough. Jodie Foster's performance is just plain odd. The two-time Oscar winner should have been able to bring enough menace and venom to the role of Elysium overseer, but she appears hamstrung and directionless, as if reading her lines on auto-cue for the first time. Plus it sounds like her voice has been dubbed over - there are a few extremely strange line deliveries that suggest someone was fucking around in post-production a little too much. Braga is the stock-standard love interest, and she plays it well enough for what it's worth, but doesn't have much to do by the film's end other than look concerned. Fortunately, as with District 9, Blomkamp proves again that he works best with fellow South African Sharlto Copley, who simply blows everyone else off the screen with a truly menacing and revolting character. M. Kruger (we never learn what the M stands for, so I assume it's either Mad, Maniacal or Motherfucker, all of which suit the character) is a truly nightmarish creation, perfectly suited as Damon's opposite, and the film suffers when Copley isn't around.

If you're a stickler for plot-holes, then Elysium might just do your head in. So instead of recounting where the plot goes off the rails (hello, Earth-bound shoulder-mounted missiles that can fire into deep space and catch up with passenger ships that apparently take a few minutes to get to Elysium) it's probably best to switch off your brain and just enjoy the pyrotechnics, of which there are quite a few. Yes, if you thrilled to the mech-fight in District 9 complete with flying pig carcass and exploding bad guys, there are a few chunky scenes of carnage that come close in Elysium. Credit to Blomkamp: instead of accepting a bigger budget under the condition of a PG-13 rating and a parade of empty CGI-thrills, he at least has delivered an original concept, a sci-fi movie, and an R-rated (US) movie at that. And these days, where everything is a remake or a reboot or a rethink or a superhero movie, that's pretty refreshing. As I've said before, it's no District 9, and you'll enjoy this a hell of a lot more if you go into the film remembering that. Elysium delivers pulpy, stylised action which overcomes its flaws thanks to an interesting vision, flawless CGI and the skills of two talented South African buddies.
The Disc
Sony's "Mastered in 4K" presentation (mind you, it's not a 4K version, of course) of Elysium looks absolutely superb, with remarkable levels of detail, clarity and visual brilliance. The film paints a grim picture of Earth, yet this dusty, gritty hell-hole sparkles on Blu-Ray, as does the utopian picture painted by the station Elysium. There are no imperfections to be seen - this is reference quality stuff. The level of clarity and detail is astonishing, and even when the action is fast and shaky, there's not a pixel out of place. The same goes for the audio. The 7.1 lossless soundtrack will give your system quite the workout, with Elysium's meaty sound effects that include ear-blistering gunfire, smashy-smashy exoskeleton battles and the functional sounds of the grungy spaceships and other future-tech.

The Blu-Ray is packed with features. The section "Vision of 2154" is, in the disc's words, "conceptual art, 3d models and visual effects progressions which provided inspiration for the year 2154". It's basically a gallery of concept art split into two parts, Elysium and Earth, and it's a bit of a chore to navigate through, but interesting enough if you're into this sort of stuff. There's an extended scene called "Kruger Wakes Up" which was presumably cut for pacing reasons, but it's a bit of a shame, because extra Copley swearing like a trooper as Kruger is always a good thing.

The Blu-Ray's biggest feature is the making of "The Journey to Elysium", divided into three parts: "Envisioning Elysium", "Capturing Elysium" and "Enhancing Elysium". This is a pretty decent making of with plenty of input from, obviously, writer/director Neill Blomkamp, producer Simon Kinberg and other crew members. Covering the extensive pre-production phase, then the filming and post-production, the cast are notably absent from this feature, but on the whole this is a must-see for fans.

"Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium" sees Blomkamp talk about casting the film, and we finally get to hear from Matt Damon (Max), Jodie Foster (Delacourt) and Sharlto Copley (Kruger). It's a pretty good feature, but why wasn't this incorporated into "The Journey to Elysium"? "The Technology of 2154" is another feature where Blomkamp talks about designing and using the technology of Elysium, explaining how the technology used in the film isn't really true speculative fiction but rather tech as metaphor, more thematic rather than practical, which was obviously the case for stuff like those ridiculous deus ex machina healing pods. The awesome Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop makes an appearance here, talking about the guns and androids and exo-skeletons.

"In Support of Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium" is the VFX reel, with the effects boffins talking about how they accomplished some of Elysium's remarkable visual effects. Blomkamp and his effects crew talk about the relatively low level number of effects shots (apparently about 800 in total, which isn't a lot compared to some blockbusters) and some of the interesting techniques they used, such as using helicopters in place of spaceships in the LA scenes so that they got the right shots and dust swirls for Kruger's VTOL Raven. "Engineering Utopia: Creating a Society in the Sky" covers the concept and construction of the Elysium station, with input from conceptual artist Syd Mead. The disc also has trailers for White House Down, Captain Phillips and others.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Elysium is like its space-station utopian namesake: extremely pretty to look at but it lacks internal logic and suffers from structural weaknesses. Though it shares similar DNA to the far-superior District 9, Neill Blomkamp's sophomore effort doesn't pack quite the same punch. However, a vicious performance by Sharlto Copley, some sterling CGI and brutal action scenes save the day. It's at least refreshing to have a sci-fi/action film that's an original property, not a sequel, remake or reboot.
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