2009 was a busy year for Sci-fi, with a slew of releases ranging from J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek to the trippy Pandorum, but two films proved to be the cream that rose to the top in terms of hard science fiction; Duncan Jones’ incredible Moon, and South African director Neill Blomkamp’s apartheid allegory, District 9. Both films showed the emergence of two important new players in the science fiction sweepstakes, with Jones proving his feature debut was no fluke with 2011’s excellent Source Code, while we had to wait a little longer for Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s dystopian future epic Elysium.
In the late 21st century, the wealthy denizens of Earth choose to leave their overpopulated, polluted, and crime-infested home and begin anew on a glorious orbital “world” known as Elysium. This massive space station is home to the best in medical care, lush greenery, and the freshest air money can buy, and is the envy of all of the less-than-fortunate billions who aren’t worthy of citizenship. It is here we are introduced to Max DaCosta, a young orphan raised in the favelas of Los Angeles, who, along with his first love, Frey, dreams of one day living on Elysium.
We jump to the year 2154. A now-adult Max (Matt Damon), recently paroled after years in and out of prison for all manner of criminal offenses, wants nothing more than to work his way up the ranks at the local factory, and avoid the temptations of “easy money” afforded by his previous career choices. When Max is stopped by the android police manning the cities myriad checkpoints, he’s a little cocky, leading to a confrontation that sees both his parole extended and his arm broken. When he visits the local hospital to have his arm set, he’s shocked to see Frey (Alice Braga), who long ago left the favela to pursue nursing. Max asks her out for coffee to catch up, and, despite her better judgment (she knows his criminal history), reluctantly accepts his invitation. Sadly, the date is not to be as, later that day, Max is involved in a work accident that sees him exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, and is informed he has less than five days to live. He’s handed a vial of pills that will allow him to function normally until his body shuts down, but, other than that, his only hope of survival lay on Elysium.
Max seeks the aid of his former employer, Spider (Wagner Moura), who runs covert shuttle trips to Elysium for the ill to get treatment (if they can get past the space stations defenses), but his fee is exorbitant, and, even for his old friend Max, there can be no free rides. He, instead, offers Max a chance to work for his passage, informing him of a plan to steal data from the brain implant of an Elysian citizen. Max is onboard so long as he can both choose his team and their target; John Carlyle (William Fichtner) the CEO of the factory Max worked in. What Max doesn’t know, however, is that Carlyle has been working with Elysium’s Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and, being the man who programmed the space station’s security system, has colluded with her to overthrow the existing Elysium government, putting her in charge. When Max and his team capture and steal Carlyle’s data, they’ve also captured the proverbial keys to the kingdom – a means of making everyone on Earth a citizen of Elysium. Of course, Delacourt will stop at nothing to get this information back, and enlists the aide of loose-cannon operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley) and his team to bring Max and his the contents of his brain back to her at any cost.
Much like District 9 (and all great speculative fiction), Blomkamp takes real world issues and gives them a fantastic spin, making a world that at once mirrors our own while still being a visual and intellectually stimulating escapist experience. Elysium, of course, represents the privileged “1%”, and the citizens of Earth are us, looking up into the night sky at the vulgar display of wealth that’s, for most, forever out of reach. It’s potentially powerful stuff, but, this time out, Blomkamp embraces the action angle a bit more, making Elysium more of a crowd pleasing sci-fi/action spectacle than the thoughtful meditation on human rights that made his previous film such a welcome and emotionally charged surprise. Another issue I had with the film lay with Jodie Foster, whose performance here is easily the worst in the film, and, quite possibly, the worst of her career. She seems to be channeling some sort of amalgam of wealthy archetypes, but comes off looking like someone with Parkinson’s disease doing a bad Crocodile Dundee impression. It’s really distracting every moment she’s onscreen, and, for an actress of Foster’s caliber, a huge, very unwelcome surprise. Still, Elysium is a visually impressive, incredibly violent, and exciting film that boasts a pair of great performances by Damon and Copley (who is magical as the unhinged Kruger), and will certainly entertain audiences looking for a nice balance of hard sci-fi and rock-em-sock-em action, but, as a follow-up to the admittedly hard act to follow that is District 9, it’s a modest disappointment.
Elysium comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Sony, and, as one would expect, looks and sounds absolutely spectacular. The 2.39:1 transfer has, like the bulk of Sony’s recent blockbuster releases, been mastered in 4K, resulting in a razor sharp image this is teeming with fine detail, and possesses an almost three-dimensional quality in terms of depth and dimension. The 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is an immersive and exceptionally robust accompaniment, with well-implemented directional effects, blistering bass, and crystalline highs. This disc is reference quality material all around.
As one would expect from a tentpole release such as this, Sony wrangles up some compelling bonus features, including a featurette entitled “The Journey to Elysium”, which is broken down into three short “chapters”, each covering a stage in the film’s development and production. Also included are featurettes focusing on casting (Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium), the film’s art design and concepts (The Technology of 2154 and Engineering Utopia: A Society in the Sky) and special effects (In Support of Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium). We also get an extended scene of Kruger’s “repair” (quite a gruesome bit), as well as trailers for other Sony releases. All of the bonus features are in HD, and, the set also includes a standard definition version of the film on DVD, as well as the ubiquitous UV copy.
Fans of District 9 may be slightly disenchanted by Blomkamp’s follow-up to that important film, but Elysium is still better than the majority of science fiction offerings given, and definitely deserves a viewing. For me, the biggest letdown of the film is Jodie Foster, whose performance here is so distracting and grating that I found myself wanting to claw my eyes out every time she was onscreen. It’s really gutting, especially given her usual top-shelf performances, and one can only assume Blomkamp was either starstruck or intimidated enough by the actress that he just couldn’t bring himself to reign her in (something she clearly needed). Aside from that, I was entertained and, at times, moved by Elysium, and, while it’s not quite the maturation I expected from the Blomkamp, it’s certainly not a massive regression, either. Recommended.