Popular wisdom considers Elysium a sophomore slump: not bad, but not quite up to director Neil Blomkamp‘s extraordinary feature debut, District 9. This new film is too preachy, they say. Too obvious. It wears its heart too loudly on its sleeve and, for what is apparently Jodie Foster‘s swan song, the celebrated actress really phones it in. All of these things are true. And yet they resolutely fail to diminish the film’s impact, both as a comment on our times and as straight-up entertainment in its own right. When it arrived in theaters last summer, we were in desperate need of a film to shake us out of the doldrums. Now that it’s out on Blu-ray, its sterling qualities stand out all the more. Hit the jump for my full review.
Its biggest asset, like many good science fiction films, is the plausibility of its universe. It shows us a future Earth left ravaged by poverty and overpopulation. Impossibly tall tenement buildings cram up against each other, separated by seething shantytowns full of desperate paupers taking each day as if it were their last. The wealthy and powerful live above it all in an orbiting satellite called Elysium, where there every need is attended to. The game-changer arrives in the form of a cybernetically-enhanced slum dweller (Matt Damon) with nothing to lose and a desperate plan to sneak onboard the space station and save his own life.
Plot holes of every kind dog this scenario, resolved by hand-waving convenience that demands you accept what the filmmakers tell you unquestioned. It can get exasperating at times, especially if you come in with the questioning mind that the scenario seems to demand. Blomkamp counters that with pure technique, exercising a feverish inventiveness that turns the action sequences into a joy. As entertainment, Elysium is as good as they come, bolstered by Blomkamp’s glee at the mayhem he creates and concept designs that provide a compelling canvas on which he can unleash it.
It doubly helps to have a good villain. Not Foster, sadly, whose icy executive betrays the actress’s apparent disillusionment and ennui. The real juice comes from Sharlto Copley, so wonderful in District 9 and now given free rein as a hitman gunning for Damon’s behind. We’re not entirely sure just how bad he can be initially, until his quiet demeanor flashes depths of monstrosity shocking even for a world as callous as this. Blomkamps gives him plenty to do, as wells was exploring the logical extension of some of his core concepts in ways that the actor can really sink his teeth into. Movies like this live and die on the strength of their bad guys, and with Copley anchoring that end of things, Elysium readily hits its stride.
That’s important in movies like this, which serve as entertainment first and message movies second. The latter aspect is the film’s weakest element, delivered too broadly and overtly to really sink in like it should. Even so, it still reflects the concerns of our modern world and if falls back on simplistic answers, at least it engages a concept well worth engaging. It avoids the pitfalls of undue timeliness, since the haves-vs.-have-nots issue is in no danger of going anywhere anytime soon. 2013 proved a fairly strong year for science fiction movies, and while Elysium doesn’t quite rank with the Hers and the Gravitys out there, is still proves an honorable member of those ranks. Blomkamp continues to make his case as a director of merit, and his skills haven’t diminished even for a so-called sophomore slump. Elysium proves well-worth a second look, as a smarter-than-average thrill ride as much as a aspirant to something greater.
The Blu-ray disc proves well worth the purchase price, featuring a very crisp audio and video transfer as well as several hours of interesting and informative extras. Their only downside is that they’re fairly by-the-numbers, but the tone is smarter than we’re used to and the information — covering everything from the world design to the casting of the leads — should prove thoroughly enlightening to the movie’s fans.