Elysium Review
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Back in 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s relatively low-budget sci-fi thriller, District 9, was a surprise hit, wowing critics and audiences alike—and picking up four Oscar nods in the process. Now, in Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow-up, Elysium, the budget’s bigger, the stars are brighter, and the story’s a whole lot heavier.

Elysium takes place in 2154, long after pollution and overpopulation have sent Earth’s most privileged residents off to a utopian kind of space station called Elysium. There, the air is clean, and scientific advancements mean that no one has to deal with the inconveniences of things like illness or injury.

Max (Matt Damon) has always dreamed of leaving Earth and moving to Elysium, but tickets don’t come cheap. So when an accident at work leaves him desperate to get to Elysium’s healing docks, he accepts a deadly mission in exchange for free passage to a new life.

With District 9, Blomkamp flew completely under the radar, working with an unknown cast to create a smart, gritty thriller that felt almost entirely effortless. For the follow-up, however, the pressure was on. Fans were eager to see what the director could do with a Hollywood budget and a couple of A-list stars. And while Elysium is definitely bigger and flashier and a whole lot glossier, it’s also more self-conscious—and it’s lacking the independent spirit that made District 9 such a hit.

District 9 was a socially aware film, with a subtle underlying message. Elysium brings its own social consciousness—but in a more blatant, heavy-handed way. Here, it’s all about the plight of the illegal immigrant—and the evils of things like Homeland Security and militant politicians. It’s emphasized by Jodie Foster’s character, Elysium’s evil defense secretary who shoots first and never even bothers to ask questions. Not only is she a ridiculously sinister character, but her performance is so terribly over-the-top that she’s uncomfortable to watch.

Elysium is a heavy film. The conditions on Earth are horrific, and the people are sick and dying and unable to get the proper care. It’s all so dreary, in fact, that, without the intense action—and the charming star—it would be almost oppressive. Fortunately, the action sequences will help take your mind off the more depressing parts of the story—and Damon is just so earnest and sincere (despite his criminal record) that you can’t help but love him.

Elysium is another thoughtful sci-fi thriller from a talented young director—but it’s also a victim of the dreaded Sophomore Slump. In trying to recapture the spirit—and the success—of District 9, Blomkamp took everything just a bit too far, making it an intriguing but overdone follow-up.

DVD Review:
The DVD release of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium may not be loaded with extras—in fact, it offers just two options—but they’re still worth checking out.

Collaboration: Crafting the Performances in Elysium explores Blomkamp’s casting choices—and how, when faced with the ability to cast big-name stars, he made sure to cast the most likable, down-to-Earth celebrities (like Matt Damon). Beyond the casting details, it then discusses a few other topics—like the cast’s on-set friendships and the challenge of killing Jodie Foster.

Engineering Utopia, meanwhile, focuses on the film’s visuals—especially on the sci-fi beauty of the space station. This feature discusses how Blomkamp and his team worked closely with conceptual artist Syd Mead to create an outer-space community that’s both realistic and futuristic.

There may not be a library of features included on this release, but the two extras do cover some of the more interesting topics. I recommend starting with Engineering Utopia. But if you have time left over, Collaboration is a little too long, but it’s worth a look, too.

Listen to the review on Reel Discovery:

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