Sony Pictures // R // $40.99 // December 17, 2013
Review by Randy Miller III | posted December 23, 2013
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Much like director Neil Blomkamp's debut film, District 9 (2009), sophomore effort Elysium (2013) is anything but an exercise in subtlety. Both present a sci-fi facade that masks heavy undercurrents of timeless social and political commentary, including class warfare and the threat of oppressive authority. But unlike its bug-minded older brother, Elysium trades in apartheid for immigration and universal healthcare, lesser-known actors for a few familiar faces, and scrappy production values for a budget nearly four times that of its predecessor. It may not have been an entirely fair trade, all things considered, but the visceral end result still manages to entertain despite a few glaring faults.

Elysium takes place in a ravaged Earth of 2154: overpopulation, disease and war have reduced the planet to a wasteland not far removed from something out of Wall-E. The poor waste away in slums while oppressive police droids and authority figures look on with disdain and detachment; those lucky enough to have jobs work long, dangerous hours for little pay. The wealthy and powerful---including Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster)---live high above in "Elysium", a floating space colony that quietly teases Earth-dwelling skywatchers with clean air, lush green landscapes and miraculous medical technology. These luxuries are just out of reach for people like Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker who, after an accident on the job, develops radiation poisoning that could be cured above. Frey Santiago (Alice Braga) is a nurse with a childhood connection to Max, but it's her dying daughter that will eventually reconnect their relationship. Ultimately, Max's desperate path to Elysium leads to a data heist from his boss John Carlyle (William Fichtner), which just might end up being the key to breaking down the walls of this seemingly uncrossable border.

Unfortunately, Elysium is saddled with heavy-handed symbolism that usually misses the mark. Overpopulated, poverty-stricken Earth is obviously meant to represent Mexico (hell, many of the slum scenes were even filmed there), while Elysium itself is an idealized stand-in for America. The poor are turned away en masse, left to fend for themselves in a police state with limited access to medicine. The wealthy make important decisions in a floating hive of country clubs and McMansions. If only they'd just open the borders, those poor souls could be saved! It's an incredibly naive and one-sided perspective of an important issue, which can give Elysium a decidedly unpleasant aftertaste if you bother filling in the blanks. From a purely technical and surface-level standpoint, though, it's an easy enough film to digest.

So, despite the last paragraph, I ended up enjoying Elysium as a whole...especially the second time around, once I was able to tune out some of the less satisfying elements. It's a gritty, accessible, entertaining production with strong technical merits, most of which overshadow the clumsy social allegory. It's certainly a modest step down from District 9, but those who appreciated Blomkamp's debut will want to check this out. Sony's Blu-ray offers a terrific amount of support, including a reference-quality A/V presentation and an engaging collection of bonus features. Though not exactly blind buy material, those who like their science fiction with a bit less cream and sugar will probably enjoy themselves.

Video & Audio Quality

This "Mastered in 4K" release looks absolutely fantastic from top to bottom. The 1080p, 2.39:1 transfer showcases a high amount of image detail including strong textures and excellent close-ups; what's more, absolutely no apparent digital imperfections could be spotted along the way. The film's stylized color palette is another standout, offering vivid hues and consistent black levels. Plenty of new release Blu-rays treat viewers with near-perfect visuals, but this is as flawless an image as I've seen in high definition to date. Without question, Sony's Blu-ray is a five-star effort all the way.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix is also reference-quality material, offering a consistently wide and detailed soundstage that listeners won't feel lost in. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, music cues sound robust without fighting for attention and plenty of crisp channel separation will really take your ears for a ride. Not surprisingly, LFE is also quite potent at times and really adds a tremendous depth to the overall viewing experience. Optional English (SDH), French (SDH) and Spanish Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature and some of the applicable extras.

Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design

The relatively simple menu design is easy to navigate in both formats and loading time is generally fast. Both discs appear to be unlocked for region-free playback as well. This release is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase (no holes!) and includes a promotional insert, a Digital Copy Redemption Code, two-sided artwork and a matching matte-finish slipcover.

Bonus Features

There's a fairly nice mix of supplements here for a first-time release, although the lack of a director's audio commentary is slightly disappointing. "The Journey to Elysium" (45 minutes total) is a three-part behind-the-scenes documentary divided into "Envisioning", "Capturing" and "Enhancing Elysium"; respectively, the cover the film's inception, the actual shooting process and, of course, post-production and special effects. If you're thirsty for more info, four additional Featurettes go into greater detail about specific production elements: "Collaboration" (13 minutes) covers the casting process, "In Support of Story" (11 minutes) examines specific visual effects, "The Technology of 2154" (10 minutes) looks at the tech created for the film and "Engineering Utopia" (12 minutes) details some of Syd Mead's valuable design contributions.

"Visions of 2154" is a nifty little slideshow interface that serves up additional photos, 3-D models, film clips, production video and conceptual artwork. This collection of material might have been more appropriate as an "in-movie" extra but fans of the film will enjoy digging through it. A short Extended Scene (2 minutes) and a handful of Previews for other Sony titles are also tucked away here...but sadly, no marketing material or trailers / TV spots for the film are included.

Elysium is a visceral, entertaining sci-fi thriller saddled with heavy-handed, preachy undertones that will undoubtedly rub some the wrong way. However, the slick action, excellent special effects, solid lead performance and intriguing execution help to carry most of the weight, at least enough to make it an enjoyable enough experience on the surface. Sony's excellent Blu-ray offers a jaw-dropping A/V presentation and a well-rounded mixture of quality bonus features; it's a surprisingly good package, considering the quick turnaround time. Certainly Recommended for those who saw and enjoyed Elysium in theaters (and almost on pure technical merits alone), but some might be just as happy renting it instead.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.

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