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South African director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with District 9, a science fiction film that rode a wave of acclaim all the way to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. That film was a nice refreshing break from the typical modern science fiction film, which has more or less devolved into just action movies with aliens. So, there was definitely every reason to look forward to Elysium this summer.
Unfortunately, the pricey film didn't light up the box office in the same way Sony hoped, despite starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. It didn't receive the kind of acclaim District 9 did and for good reason. Despite aspirations to be a thinking man's science fiction film, it quickly turns into a typical action movie with computer graphics overload.
Like District 9, Elysium centers on separated worlds. The year is 2154 and earth has turned into a disease-infested landscape. The rich live on a satellite, where paradise is preserved. But Max Da Costa (Damon) can't deal with it any longer, especially after he gets a deadly dose of radiation from a workplace accident. Although the rich have the tools to cure all diseases, none of those tools are available on earth, so he tries to get a ticket through the black market. Another goal for him is to help childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) get a cure for her daughter, who has leukemia.
Meanwhile, back on Elysium, Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) is plotting a coup, since she's disappointed with the lack of action from elected officials. She enlists the help of weapons mogul Carlyle (William Fitchner in one of his usual goon roles) and psychopathic mercenary Kruger (District 9 star Sharlto Copley). Max and Delacourt collide, when the only way Max can get his illegal ticket to Elysium is by stealing the data in Carlyle's head.
All this set up takes up the first hour or so of the film, and it's easy to admit that it's all pretty thrilling. Blomkamp may just have the premiere science fiction mind in Hollywood today, but unfortunately, he lets his story get away from him. The last half of the film is paint-by-the-numbers Matrix influenced action that looks like it came from a video game.
Elysium hits Blu-ray this week with a robust edition from Sony. The transfer is advertised as “mastered in 4K,” which means that it is as close to the digital theatrical presentation as possible. It looks stunning and a great example of the best of the high definition format. While there are no commentaries, the collection of extras gives a good idea of the process of crafting this movie. There's an in-depth 45-minute documentary, plus shorter featurettes on specific aspects of the production. I'd also like to give props to Sony for including a small gallery of concept art, something rare for new studio releases.
Elysium starts off strong, with a great concept that comments on today's ever-growing gap between the 1 percent and the poor, but it quickly runs out of ideas as it develops. Blomkamp's first big-budget Hollywood film begins to feel like a movie made within the system fairly quickly. It's predictable as it gets by the end. That means that it's still entertaining, so if you're more interested in visual marvels than story, Elysium is something you'll enjoy.