Published Dec 16, 2013Despite first-rate world building, clever modern steampunk design elements, stimulating action cinematography and a terrific cast, Neill Blomkamp's long-gestating follow up to District 9 is a tad underwhelming. Blame it on a premise wholly dependant upon an extremely on-the-nose depiction of wealth disparity. The entire purpose of this gritty science fictionalization of class divide is so blatant it's not even placed under a thin film of metaphor; everything Blomkamp has to say is right on the surface.
It takes a while for a suspicious sense of malaise to creep through the rich environment of the third-world Earth — partially automated and fully dehumanizing — that Blomkamp has constructed as his vision of the year 2154 on our planet. Matt Damon stars as a factory worker with a shady past forced, in order to save his life following an industrial accident, into a criminal endeavour: infiltrating the orbiting space paradise for the rich and powerful the movie is named after. He seems like the sort of down-to-earth fellow trying to make good we should all root for, but something about his character (maybe it's the short-sighted idealism and bland romantic motivation) inspires disquieting indifference.
Many, if not all, of the characters populating this interesting dystopian world suffer from a similar lack of development, even Sharlto Copley's memorable scene-stealing psychopath, a contract killer by the name of Kruger. Any identification we have with, or disdain we develop for, these people is based on a cut and dry, heavily manipulated sense of good and evil; morally murky consequences have no place in this narrative. That's not to say that Elysium is a poor film by any measure — it just feels like Blomkamp's aspirations outweigh his story's ability to explore its issues with any degree of complexity.
A plethora of special features are included with the Blu-Ray release, ranging from extremely informative to rich but ornamental. "Visions of 2154" is an interactive selection of the film's technological designs that are offered without comment. Fret not, though: the rest of the supplements, save one extended scene, are over-explained, if anything. "The Journey to Elysium" is a three-part look behind the scenes of the film's genesis and construction. It's full of raw footage and interviews, but at no point does Blomkamp reveal any hidden layers; what we see is all he was trying to convey. "Collaboration" details the casting process, including the maverick director's apprehension over bringing Hollywood A-listers into his creative environment. Like in the film, Sharlto Copley steals the spotlight in every clip he's in with a combination of deadpan humour, ineffable wackiness and a degree of honesty not found in most professional actors.
In "The Technology of 2154," Blomkamp prattles on about the importance of theme and metaphor to his work before spending the rest of the feature on technical details. "In Support of Story: The Visual Effects of Elysium" makes a similar claim and subsequent digression. Finally, "Engineering Utopia" emphasises how important heavy-handed satire is to the director before once again getting caught up in the film's technological minutiae. (Do you see a pattern here?)
Shortcomings aside, Elysium is well worth a watch for sci-fi and action fans, and from a technical standpoint, the bonus features are exceptional.