Rated: Elysium – Everything the Sci-Fi Genre’s Been Needing

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The Basics

In the year 2159, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the planet’s crime and poverty, and they critically need the state-of-the-art medical care available on Elysium — but some in Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens’ luxurious lifestyle. The only man with the chance bring equality to these worlds is Max, an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission — one that pits him against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt and her hard-line forces — but if he succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well.

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley

Masterful Storytelling

The first thing that must be said about Elysium is it’s ability to tell a story.  Honestly, while watching the film, I felt as though I was watching a master storyteller at work.  The characters are engaging and realistic, while the world that’s crafted is instantly believable.  If I’m going to lavish praise upon any particular thing, I’d say the world-building aspect would be it.

Remember why the original Star Wars film was so effective in crafting the world around the characters?  George Lucas’ idea of a ‘used-future’ where in the technology presented wasn’t shiny and new, but obviously used and dated (to the point of falling apart in some cases) gave the galaxy far, far away a sense of realism and gravitas without the need for any explanation.  Elysium is handled much the same way.  Outside of a cursory explanation of the political events that made the world what it is, the film doesn’t waste any time in explaining the fantastic technology it presents.

Instead, it treats everything (from robots to space travel, and some bad ass healing technology) as normal things within that universe.  By not making the technology and fantastical elements within the story a focus, they were able to simple exist in that world and feel like a genuine part of it.  This allowed them to achieve and almost instantaneous realism of the world in which you could suspend your disbelief and nothing was able to challenge it.  There was never a point during the film where I felt like something was out of place or so futuristic as to take me out of the experience. 

This is no easy feat considering that most sci-fi films as of late are all about visual spectacle, and forcing viewers to pay attention to tech presented.  Because Elysium took the opposite approach, I found them even more impressive.  This also had another significant effect, this allowed the characters and story to be completely at the forefront.  Frankly, that’s how every movie should be anyway.  It’s a medium designed entirely for telling a story, and all too often, the spectacle and ideas get in the way of that.

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, or really a storyteller of any kind, I encourage you to watch this film over and over again.  By far Elysium is one of the best examples I’ve seen lately of the concept of “Showing vs. Telling”.  It’s an idea writers have been struggling with for a long time (and a topic we’ve covered extensively in the Writer’s Block section of the site), that tasks storytellers with being able to show an audience something rather than just telling them about it.  The greatest films out there have found the proper balance between showing and telling, and I’m happy to say Elysium has joined them; managing to tell a more intricate and cohesive story in an hour and 40 minutes than films 3 hours long have been able to to (sorry Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). 

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Moving the Genre Forward

The aspect of Elysium that has me the most excited, is it’s ability to finally move the science fiction movie genre forward.  For a while now, sci-fi films have essentially been the same, and have felt as though they were growing stagnant.  Elysium bursts past them all, by actually going back to the genres original roots.  One of the first things I said upon leaving the theater was that watching Elysium felt much like reading one of those really great, old-school science fiction novels: short, entertaining, and with a powerful message. 

What a lot of people don’t realize these days is that science fiction, as a genre, was started as a way for authors and storytellers to provide cutting social commentary on their modern society.  By putting stories in futuristic settings, they were able to talk about current issues while providing entertainment for the masses.  In this way they could reach more people with their message than traditional storytelling would allow.  Think of any Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein story, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and even sci-fi classic films like The Day the Earth Stood Still.  All of these told amazing stories with central themes and a purpose behind them.  They punctuated issues and warned of where we could be heading. 

That’s what the genre is designed for, and Elysium encapsulates that by creating a gripping story dealing with a myriad of social issues.  It’s a smart film, requiring the audience to keep up or get left behind.  The film doesn’t hold your hand throughout, but rather treats you like an intelligent person, (which is something I feel has been lacking in the film industry in general).  That’s not to say it’s a boring film, however; not by any stretch of the imagination.  It still features plenty of exciting action sequences and thrills for audiences that aren’t as into the thematic elements.  In fact, because the film made you so engaged within the story and characters, the action scenes were far more exciting than they would have been normally. 

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Acting and Visuals

While Elysium features an incredibly strong story, it couldn’t have been pulled off without strong performances from the actors.  Everyone did an excellent job in this movie, and made their characters feel believable and realistic almost instantly.  Within moments, literally, of a character appearing you got a sense of who they were and what they were about. 

Their personalities were conveyed in the way they moved, the subtle ‘ticks’ and mannerisms they displayed, and the ways in which they talked.  It sort of goes back to what I mentioned before, in showing versus telling.  The actors did a great job of establishing their individual characters, by saying very little.  It was all in how they conducted themselves, and resulted in impressive performances that completely manage to suck you in.

Of course we can’t talk about a science fiction film, without talking about the visuals.  This movie finally gave Blomkamp a good sized budget to work with, and he appeared to use it to great effect. All of the visuals in the film are stunning.  The stark contrasts between Earth and Elysium are apparent, and the technology, while futuristic, feels very grounded and realistic.  Nothing stuck out at me as CGI, as I feel there was a good blend between computer graphics and practical pieces. 

For all the imagery the film presents you with, they did a great job of making them feel real and a part of the universe crafted.  The VFX is top-notch, and should be able to stand the test of time, while other sci-fi movies might not fare as well in the future.  While the focus of Elysium is on the story, there’s plenty of spectacle here for everyone to enjoy and be impressed by. 

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Bottomline

Elysium is everything the science fiction genre has been needing in order to finally move the genre forward for a new generation, and watching this film is watching a master storyteller at work.  Neill Blomkamp is a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and everyone needs to go see his latest film.  It’s a fun film, chocked full of entertainment, but also wrapped up in an engaging story with characters you find yourself caring about almost instantly.  If you miss this film, you may very well be missing out on the best 2013 has to offer. 

Elysium, in theaters August 9th, gets a 9.5 out of 10