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It would be impossible and disingenuous to say "Elysium" lives up to expectations following writer/director Neill Blomkamp's previous film, "District 9." "District 9" made Blomkamp a household name in 2009 and offered audiences not only a smart, visually stunning sci-fi saga, but one sporting a wizened script rich with a historically important allegory. The release of "Elysium" was built up much in the same way as "District 9," with a vague marketing sense, allowing viewers to soak in visuals but not walk away with any real sense of what to expect. So, while those not expecting to get a sci-fi spin on apartheid when entering "District 9" are likely to be completely surprised that "Elysium" offers little more than what its vague trailers promised: high-quality sci-fi action. That's not to say there isn't a smart script behind "Elysium."
Blomkamp's sophomore effort tells the classic tale of a caste society set between a 2154 vision of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles and the utopian outpost of Elysium, a place free of all disease only available to the most wealthy and privileged. Blomkamp's script does indeed set out to build itself on fundamental human rights issues, not all that removed from "District 9," but does so with little subtlety and most detrimentally, a lack of slow-burn buildup to an action backed second and third act. Instead, we are thrown into the midst of the action on both Earth and Elysium, following ex-con Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) in LA and Delacourt (Jodie Foster) on Elysium, through the character of Carlyle (William Fichtner) who is simultaneously running the company that Max works for while staging a coup on Elysium. The circumstances turning Max from one of the oppressed masses to an exoskeleton enhanced super warrior are inconsequential, but the overt symbolism and connection to childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga) and her terminally ill daughter shouldn't make the film's eventual direction all that shocking.
What makes "Elysium" tick and run so smoothly though is not its occasionally rote screenplay, but it's no-nonsense polished action often featuring the film's most intriguing villain, Kruger a bionically enhanced, sociopathic, black book agent working on Earth for Delacourt. Kruger comes to life not from the dialogue he spews, but the intensity of Sharlto Copley's performance, a complete polar opposite from the reluctant everyman turned revolutionary in "District 9." Copley is a great foil to Damon's hardheaded nobility and at times is incredibly terrifying in both tone and action, all possible via the tremendous visual effects department. From the first big action sequence pitting Max and his crew against a pair of robot warriors to the mano-a-mano showdown between Max and Kruger on Elysium itself, Blomkamp's knack for visually stunning storytelling takes center stage and as the action gets better, while the screenplay remains firmly rooted in the competently obvious, one gets the distinct impression that while not getting "District 9-redux" might be a surface letdown, getting instead, a perfectly paced well-acted old-school sci-fi action vehicle that might just be Blomkamp's quiet thumbing of his nose at what passes for modern sci-fi spectacle.
Had it been released a decade ago, "Elysium" would likely have found wider praise, but in the wake of "The Matrix," "Children of Men," "District 9," and "Cloud Atlas," there's an overwhelming sense that there's only two extremes: smart sci-fi and mass-market sci-fi (the likes of "Avatar" and "Star Trek"); "Elysium" firmly straddles the line between merely serviceable scripts pumped full of visual eye-candy and the tightly woven, timeless tale merely using a sci-fi setting as a backdrop. It's a film well above the line of trite cliché, but not quite reaching any really moving levels of social commentary. The viewer is never asked to think too hard about the events transpiring on-screen but at the same time never has their intelligence insulted and is treated to big action that will never be written off as big "dumb" action. "Elysium" is a film that will hopefully endure as a return to classic sci-fi form, not an a-level choice, but far above the countless genre entries that have come and been forgotten. Recommended.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is absolutely stunning with strong detail, natural contrast, and incredibly solid color reproduction. The film's shifts between the grimy, dusty future Los Angeles landscape is thoroughly distinct from the lush sterility of Elysium. It's nice to see a very solid DVD transfer in a world where DVD sometimes feels likes an afterthought to a high-end HD release.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio is equally impressive with strong use of surrounds for both atmosphere and to sell the bigger action sequences appropriately. The low-end is used to fantastic effect and there's never a moment where a balance between the quieter character moments and shifts to big action feel disorienting poorly mixed. A 5.1 French and Spanish track are included as standard Dolby Surround tracks for English, French, and Spanish. English, English SDH, French, French SDH, and Spanish subtitles are included.
Sadly, the only extras are two brief, featurettes "Engineering Utopia" and "Collaboration" focusing, respectively on the design of the Elysium setting and the casting process.
Backed by a stunning A/V presentation, "Elysium" offers a workmanlike script brought to life through solid performances all around, a great visual sense and finely tuned, breathtaking action that doesn't sacrifice an ounce of intelligence for cloying spectacle. Neill Blomkamp might not deserve A-level praise for the film as a whole, but definitely earns points for not taking the easy way out and trying something that defied expectations. Recommended.