An Acclaimed Sci-Fi Director's Most Underrated Movie Is Now Streaming for Free
Bookended by a phenomenon and a dud, this 2010s thriller often goes forgotten.
“The Sophomore Slump” is a well-known creative curse. Expectations are high after an impressive directorial debut, and critics are less likely to forgive mistakes. While dismissing a second film as a failure is sometimes justified (like Josh Trank’s fall from Chronicle to the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot), a 2013 sci-fi adventure was initially dismissed even though, in hindsight, it’s a thrilling adventure. It’s also now streaming for free.
Neill Blomkamp had all the tools he needed after his directorial debut, District 9. The South African filmmaker had cemented himself in the realm of gritty, special-effects-laden science fiction, had found a career-long collaborator in actor Sharlto Copley, and was all set to build on his reputation with a bigger budget and cast.
The result was Elysium, a massive sci-fi adventure imbued with class commentary. Written, directed, and produced by Blomkamp, its cast boasted Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and a pre-Star-Wars Diego Luna. It followed Max (Damon), a laborer on a post-apocalyptic Earth who stumbles into a mission to Elysium, a space station where the richest people live above the riffraff in utopian harmony.
Equipped with a powerful exoskeleton and the righteous fury of a man representing millions of the disenfranchised, Max fights his way to the top of Elysium. But when he gets there, he discovers a plot that could ruin everything.
A story about the rich escaping disaster while the poor suffer through it will always be relevant, but at its heart, this is a story about healthcare justice. While people on Earth suffer from countless diseases born from a ravaged environment, those on Elysium have access to borderline magical med-bays. Add in some biohacking technology, and the result is a satisfying, futuristic story that never feels too far out of reach.
Not many remember Elysium a decade after its release, despite its positive reviews and tidy profit. It’s forgotten because it was sandwiched between District 9, one of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, and Chappie, one of the worst. Elysium, compelling yet underrated, simply slipped through the cracks. Matt Damon’s Max echoes his later sci-fi stardom in The Martian, but with the same slate grey color grading of classic early 2010s sci-fi. Jodie Foster delivers just a slightly unhinged performance as villainous Elysium Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt, cementing her place as the working man’s Tilda Swinton.
Elysium has all the elements that made District 9 great: a firm moral backbone, unflinching depictions of discrimination, brutal action, and astonishing special effects. The only real difference is that it dreamed bigger, cast bigger names, and tried to improve upon itself. It was damned by comparison but, on its own, it’s a nostalgic reminder of when a profitable and enjoyable sci-fi blockbuster could be born from a filmmaker’s reputation and the blind hope of Hollywood. It’s not the sci-fi movie Neill Blomkamp will go down in movie history for, but it’s the definition of a hidden gem.