Our present reality meets Elysium halfway
As on the nose and didactic as it is breathtaking in its aesthetics, Elysium (2013) has been a mixed bag since day one. But it’s the most fascinating kind of mixed bag — one that swings wildly between unquestionable disappointment and absolute confirmation of writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s unique mastery of visual effects and design. With his debut film District 9 (2009), Blomkamp struck a balance between biting social commentary (mixed into a thrilling sci-fi story) and cutting edge visuals that he’s never quite recaptured since in his feature film work. And yet, he’s somewhat of a household name and almost a brand unto himself even with just those two films and his last feature, Chappie, under his belt to this day. What makes Blomkamp stand out from the pack even though he’s been on somewhat of a downward trajectory after his meteoric debut? I’d argue it’s because he’s had significant control over many aspects of the final films, which allows them to be distinctly representative of his vision. And also because his films simply look amazing.
From District 9 to Elysium to Chappie, Blomkamp has established a sort of third world slum aesthetic that he pairs with a slick sci-fi sheen and there’s a unique look and feel to a Blomkamp movie that can’t be denied. Frankly, I love it. I love the vibe of his films so much that I’ve even checked out a bunch of the short films he’s been working on with his Oats Studios. And when the opportunity to review Elysium in 4K UHD came up, I jumped at the chance because it’s just one of the best looking movies of the last couple of decades, even if there are as many flaws as there are strengths. And that 4K UHD experience? It does indeed shine with a film like Elysium. It’s a great looking movie with world-building and sweeping set pieces and guns and robots that all look cool as shit and hold up phenomenally under the watchful eye of ultra high definition. That said, the movie already looked dynamite on Blu-ray and I wouldn’t say the upgrade to 4K was transformative for the film, though a few shots and sequences do inspire awe.
Revisiting Elysium in 2021 actually did improve the [still very flawed] storytelling somewhat. Elysium tells the story of Max (Matt Damon), a downtrodden orphan raised with his friend Frey (Alice Braga) by nuns in an orphanage. A familiar setting for many stories, perhaps, only in this version the whole of planet Earth is a slum and the wealthy elites dwell in an almost comically utopian space station visible from the ground, a literal glimmer in the eye of our orphaned protagonists who dream jointly to someday reach Elysium. For there, sickness and aging are no more — waved away by the flick of a magic wand, or in this case a narratively convenient pod that heals all wounds and disease in an instant. It’s that last element of this world building set up that spins the film into almost parody levels of sci-fi metaphor. There are just pods that heal everything. They’re magic. We’re asked to accept and believe that they exist, they’re only on Elysium, and of COURSE the Earth-bound poor would risk life and limb for just one minute in a magic pod that’ll clear up that degenerative bone disease once and for all. But I’ll get back to that.
Max is a former car thief who’s now trying to walk the straight and narrow path amidst a system that only wants to milk him for maximum profit. When he’s irradiated with a lethal dose on the factory assembly line and sent home by his corporate employer with a bottle of pills to die comfortably, Max instead teams up with some of his old crew, gets a badass exo-suit grafted (violently) to his rapidly deteriorating body, and embarks on a heist mission to steal his factory owners’ memory so that Elysium can be hacked and all humans can be coded as citizens of Elysium with full rights to travel there and be healed by their machines. Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacort is the scenery chewing figurehead villain of this film, who will stop at nothing to keep immigrants out of Elysium. Max is out only to save his own skin, but his selfish motivations will collide with Frey’s need to get her terminally ill daughter into one of those healing pods. Will Max escape the clutches of Kruger (scene stealing highlight Sharlto Copley), the slum-dwelling and dirt-caked elite soldier illegally deployed by Delacourt to crush her enemies on earth? Will he become the hero the planet needs or will he simply act on self preservation? Will the citizens of earth finally be given equal rights comparable to those citizens on Elysium?
Throwing even any hint of subtlety out the window, Elysium tells its story of class struggle and revolution in a very black and white manner, carrying a big stick. And you know what? Watching the film immediately after the closing of the Trump administration, the abject desperation of the sick and poor in the film felt a little less cartoonish than it used to. Or perhaps reality became so evil that it simply met Elysium halfway. And the cold-hearted Delacourt, with Foster turning the mustache-twirling up to 11, cuts a little closer to home as she blasts ships full of migrants out of the sky without batting an eye. In one early sequence where Wagner Moura’s hacker revolutionary character Spider orchestrates an attempted break in to Elysium, we see three ships full of hopeful immigrants roll the dice. Delacourt manages to simply blast two of the ships right out of the sky, parents and children forever separated from one another in their desperation. One ship makes it to Elysium, much to Delacourt’s horror. Robotic soldiers quickly round them all up, but not before ONE nameless mother and daughter make it to a pod and get the little girl forever healed of her bone disease. It’s a worldbuilding sequence, also meant to foreshadow the finale in which Frey’s daughter will make a similar quest. And to be honest, it all works so much better today, despite the frustratingly magic pods, because it all rings so true. Let’s pretend for the sake of suspension of disbelief that magic pods did exist and throngs of the poor were clamoring for access to them. The immigration crisis our country finds itself in the midst of today lends enormous credibility to Blomkamp’s nihilistic vision of the wealthy preferring to murder the poor rather than share.
The magic pods aren’t the only major issue in Elysium. The flashback sequences to Max and Frey’s childhood are awful. Damon’s casting clearly should have gone to a Mexican or Mexican-American actor as the character basically is Mexican and the themes of the film would have resonated far greater with a minority in the lead role. Delacourt is an underwritten character displaying no dimensionality. But for every flaw that threatens to crush Elysium, something stands out as brilliant to counterbalance. Copley’s Kruger is a hugely memorable villain, from his look to his relentlessness. He’s the film’s highlight for me, and honestly a favorite villain of mine. Blomkamp’s frequent reliance of practical effects results in some jaw-dropping moments of gore and body horror, as well as slick model work giving us incredible ships, vehicles, guns and robots. They just all look phenomenal. And lastly Blomkamp’s construction of set pieces and action direction are remarkable. Max’s brain heist sequence just after receiving his exosuit has some absolutely thrilling action beats, memorable camera work, and straight up gore.
In the end I’m comfortable calling Elysium a film that doesn’t work, but which I love to watch. In that regard, I’m thrilled to own the 4K UHD of the film and may even revisit it more than better films because of how unique and whiplash inducing the experience of watching Elysium really is. When you’re swinging wildly between hating and then loving what you are seeing, it’s a more thrilling watch than so many less gutsy movies that never swing for the fences as hard as Blomkamp does with Elysium.
And I’m Out.
Elysium is now available on 4K UHD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment