Unreal Movie Review: Elysium


District 9 was one of the most significant sci-fi movies of the past decade. It was made on a comically low budget, yet still had a blockbuster feel to it, more visually impressive than movies that had spent hundreds of millions more. Yet it was far from a mere popcorn flick, and drew powerful performances from its unknown cast, managing to score a best picture Oscar nomination in the process.

After that, director Neill Blomkamp had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted next. A sequel, handling another existing property, anything. With Elysium, he decided to shoot for a repeat, another gritty, original sci-fi feature with socially conscious themes.

Unfortunately, the final product just doesn’t match the caliber of District 9.

But boy does it try. Now with a dramatically increased budget of $100M+, it does everything D9 did, but bigger and better. They landed a pair of Oscar winners for the leads, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. They had all the CGI in the world for robots, spaceship and anything else they’d need.

The problem is that all the money in the world can’t buy you good performances from your expensive actors, or a worthwhile story.


“Now you get AM and FM.”

Elysium in the film is massive space station, built by the rich of Earth after the planet below had gone to shit. They live in giant white mansions up there, speaking French, attending endless cocktail parties and poolside fundraisers with other stuffy rich people. It’s supposed to be heaven, but it sort of sounds like a version of hell.

Meanwhile, Earth is a polluted, overcrowded mess, especially downtown LA where 99% of the population is Latino, except for Matt Damon’s Max, because naturally we couldn’t have a Latino lead in a movie this big, come on.

Max used to be a car thief, but after a stint in prison, now works as Armadine, a vaguely evil omni-company that builds the security robots that force the peons of Earth to do the bidding of the rich. But one day, he has an accident on the job, and a lethal dose of radiation gives him five days to live. His only salvation? The insta-healing chambers of Elysium that can cure cancer in seconds, and assuredly purge his body of the toxic poisoning.

Standing in his way are Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who spends her time bossing the President around in ways that make me confused about the power structure of the place, and her sleeper agent on Earth, Kruger (D9’s Sharlto Copley), who has a history of mental illness and access to an unlimited arsenal of weaponry.


“They’ll never suspect me in my flawless crazy bum disguise!”

To earn his black market ticket to Elysium, Max must mind-hijack valuable data from his boss at Armadine (William Fitchner) and then survive the journey through space without being blown out of the sky or executed the moment he sets foot on the station. Oh and in the process, he’s supposed to save the entire human race, but you’ll have to watch yourself to figure out how the hell that’s going to happen.

One of my only issues with District 9 was that I thought it’s parallels and commentary about apartheid in South Africa were a bit too obvious. I mean, the film was set in South Africa, and was about an alien ghetto. But that comparison was downright subtle compared to the ham-handed political messaging of Elysium.

There are two main points constantly being driven home by the film’s narrative. The first is pretty obvious when Elysium security starts rounding up “undocumented” vehicles entering their atmosphere and then hunting down and “deporting illegals.” Like, that’s literally the phrase they use, and all of these intruders are Latino. That’s not social commentary, that’s just declaring out loud with a megaphone what issues your film is trying to address.

Later, the film shifts into its second political message, and focuses on the asshole rich who don’t want to give the miserable poor access to healthcare. There are machines on Elyisum that literally cure any disease in seconds. Not only that, but when one character has his face half blown off, it reassembles it perfectly in under a minute. There’s absolutely no reason given as to why even a handful of these absurd magic boxes couldn’t be given to Earth to health the masses. Do they cost too much? Can they break from overuse? You have to give us something other than “rich people are dicks.”


“You want fifteen seconds in my insta-heal pod to cure your little girl’s life threatening leukemia? NO DEAL, F***WAD!”

I’m not bothered by the messaging because of my own political leanings. I’m fully opposed to hardline immigration policies and believe that universal healthcare is a swell idea. But the film is just SO DAMN OBVIOUS with these messages, it crowds out everything else in the film.

The action is cool, and I love the cyberpunk sci-fi worlds that Blomkamp creates both here and in D9. The soundtrack, the cinematography, everything is technically amazing, but still, the film suffers. Damon, despite being the lead, isn’t given much to do and is constantly in a state of perpetual agony. The villains are downright cartoonish, with Copley turning up his South African accent to ridiculous levels so that it’s hard to even understand him. Somehow Jodie Foster gives the worst performance of anyone, determined to make herself a parody of what a stuffy rich villain should sound like, even inventing a new type of over-pronounced accent in the process.

This is literally a film about Latinos trying to break into a rich person Garden of Eden so they can have access to free healthcare that instantly solves all their problems. There’s social commentary, and there’s this, a movie that clumsily spells everything out at every turn, and doesn’t manage to produce a memorable sci-fi film while it does so. It’s a shame because of the level of talent attached to this project, and if you me in April that Tom Cruise’s Oblivion would be twice the sci-fi film Elysium is, I would have previously laughed in your face. But it is indeed the case, and continues a trend of a relative lackluster summer movie season this year.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Could not agree more. It could have been such a great film. Now im not sure he could have made a great Halo movie, although scenes from Elysium ooze Halo.

  2. “I’m fully opposed to hardline immigration policies and believe that universal healthcare is a swell idea.”

    **stops reading review, laughs, shrugs shoulders

  3. “The villains are downright cartoonish, with Copley turning up his South African accent to ridiculous levels so that it’s hard to even understand him. Somehow Jodie Foster gives the worst performance of anyone, determined to make herself a parody of what a stuffy rich villain should sound like, even inventing a new type of over-pronounced accent in the process.”

    I have to say, this was my favorite part of the movie. The villains (you left out Fichtner!) felt straight out of a Paul Verhoven movie. Unfortunately Verhoven seems to have more control over the message of his movies, and really knows how to highlight the absurdity in them in a way Blomkamp seems to struggle with.

    For me the movie’s problem was its insistence on making its story IMPORTANT, as opposed to simply letting it be ridiculous. The childhood flashbacks felt out of sync with the more cartoonish, energetic present-day stuff, and I suspect the overall effect would have been stronger had they been excised completely.

    I liked it a bit better than you, though mostly because my expectations for it seemed to be more modest than yours. I will say that District 9 is a really good movie that suffers in my eyes from turning into a shoot-em-up late in the game, and I appreciated Elysium being more upfront about its entertainment-first agenda.

  4. I agree with most everything you said. But the fight sequences….oh the fight sequences. Terrible. Where do people learn how to shoot these highly choreographed fights. WHY do directors shoot everything SO close that you cant tell WTF is going on. And during all the fights the camera is shaking like someone was having an epileptic seizure as he shot it. UGHH! It also looked like it was shot in District 9’s set but showed an entirely different story. Dont get me wrong, I have seen worse sci-fi movies then this but I had some really high expectations for this and was let down. I had low expectations ofr Tom Cruise’s OBLIVION and was pleasently surprised like you were. Its nice when someone sees most things like I do, well, except europa report. That was a bore fest!

  5. To be fair, Blomkamt’s acting in District 9 was equally cartoonish, particularly the scenes at the restaurant.

    I enjoyed District 9, but it was all over the place. It started off as a “The Office” type of direction, then turned into an action piece.

  6. district 9 and elysium, to me, are two completely different films, each with its on unique but strong socio political undertones..

    Visually stunning, fantastic acting, and a gripping story which is relavent to the world today.

    It was almost painful to watch at some parts, because I could feel like I understood the plight of slum dwellers…

    The delivery by Sharlto Copley was just amazing.
    He reminded me of how well the guys who portrayed Col. Hans Landa from Inglorious Bastards was.

    I’m sorry if my comments sounds very general, but I was indeed moved by this film beyond words.

  7. The movie doesn’t HAVE to give us a reason why the magic healing pods can’t be used on Earth. The rich will never spend money to help the poor. Period. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know just using those pods would cost money. It would cost something to power it. You’d have to pay all the people that service it and all the robots who prepare and/or maintain it. And we don’t even know that they’re constructed on Earth, perhaps they’re made right on Elysium. If that’s the case then they’d have to pay for the cost of fuel and transportation to bring them down to Earth, or the cost of constructing a facility to make them on the planet. And if they are constructed on Earth, they would need to make considerably more than the meager handful Elysium would require to meet the demand of an overpopulated Earth. Could you see a bunch of rich snobs doing that? Just take a look at the real world and you’ll know they wouldn’t.

    I’ll admit the filming of the fight scenes was too shaky for my taste, and the story did beat you over the head, but Blomkamp isn’t a subtle guy. Who says subtlety improves a storyline? If you’re going to make a movie revolving around a real-world social issue without a real-world storyline, go right ahead and bring it right to the front of the story. What difference does it make?

    I loved Elysium, and yes Oblivion beat it out story-wise, but it’s a better movie than people are giving it credit for.

  8. Sorry Dylan, you couldn’t be more wrong. “The rich will never spend money to help the poor.”

    Every time a poor person buys food with a food stamps, get a free cell phone, or free health care, it’s because some person better off then they are paid taxes. Doesn’t matter to me if that person paid those taxes willing or not. Sure it doesn’t matter to the poor person either. And the richer they are the more they pay. You may not think it’s enough, but I’ll bet it’s more than you pay.

    As for the movie itself.. Hitler’s propaganda films of the 1930s were more subtle. It was embarrassing. It’s kinda cute to get in a left wing jab now and then.. and you’ll hear the audience chuckle once in a while. But this was way over the top. The real value of movies that make social commentary is that they do it in a way that the viewers don’t even realize they are being taught. Not this time. Bout as subtle as a pimple on the tip of your date’s nose.

    Other problems with the movie… How many times do we need to see someone break a glass patio door to use the “healing machine” inside? Are these rich people never home? If every home has one of these machines, why did they need all those EMS shuttles they flew back to earth at the end of the movie? Why in the next 100 years does everything change except laptop computers? And why do they run a computer language that looks like DOS from the 1980s?

  9. Sigh, I’ll avoid delving into politics because I know I won’t change your mind. I’m just saying that universal healthcare certainly might SEEM like a good idea, but is it actually one? Seeing the results in other countries, I would say no. Not to mention, has anyone noticed how incompetent and corrupt our gov’t is? And you want these people to be in charge of your healthcare? Sigh. Seriously, lots of liberals ideas SOUND nice, but do any of them actually work? I think Detroit tells you the answer to that.

    I’ll also never understand why it is ok for people to break the law in regards to immigration. I mean, hey, our immigration system ain’t perfect. Is the answer really “have no rules on immigration whatsoever”? Double sigh.

    Well, I liked District 9 a lot. Was interested in this one but clearly, it will have to wait until it is on Netflix. Avatar at least had spectacle going for it so I just pretended that Cameron wasn’t being a naive moron in his political messaging and just enjoyed the sci-fi bits of the film.

  10. Oh, I will say, thank you Paul for being reasonable. You’re totally right that a film should give some motivation for its villains beyond “they’re evil, see?”. It is especially hilarious for Hollywood to be going on about the evils of the “1%” when they ARE the “1%”.

  11. I think your review is spot on. The one thing I’ll add is that I work in the post-production industry and I’m 100% convinced that Jodi Fosters performance was completely and utterly destroyed by awful ADR. ADR, for those who don’t know the term, is when an actor goes into a studio after the film has been shot and edited and re-records only the dialog. Some actors and directors and audio engineers can pull it off so nobody can tell the difference, and some can’t. In this case it was just plain awful. I’d LOVE to hear her performance as it was recorded on set. I doubt it was as bad.

  12. Mr Rajoy was first implicated in the scandal in January when his name appeared in handwritten papers purporting to be copies of secreting accounting ledgers that showed monthly envelopes of cash were handed to senior politicians.

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