The Big Picture

  • Elysium is an underrated sci-fi film that offers a visually arresting experience and commentary on the current state of life on Earth.
  • Battle: Los Angeles is a sci-fi war film set in the present, with a shaky cam approach that puts the audience in the middle of the action.
  • Both films showcase the resilience of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds and deserve more attention from cinema lovers.

In the streaming era, movies come and go with alarming speed. Consequently, some movies are still looking for an audience even several years after their initial release. But these films — Elysium and Battle: Los Angeles — deserve to be rediscovered and enjoyed by a new generation of cinema lovers.

For example, Sony Pictures’ Elysium, an extremely underrated sci-fi movie that was the second feature film from South African director Neill Blomkamp. It was Blomkamp’s follow-up project after his critically acclaimed debut movie, District 9. That’s why Blomkamp had a much larger budget and canvas to work with in Elysium. It’s a visually arresting experience, and Blomkamp has a knack for creating sci-fi worlds that feel very real and lived-in. More importantly, Blomkamp doesn’t shy away from using his stories to offer commentary on the current state of life on Earth.

What Is ‘Elysium’ About?

Image via Sony Pictures

Elysium takes place approximately 130 years in the future, as the vast majority of Earth’s population is trapped in a ruined world. Meanwhile, the ultra-wealthy live in comfort on Elysium, an orbital habitat that has all the comforts and luxuries of home. It’s so enticing that the new border crisis finds refugees from Earth desperately attempting to launch spaceships to Elysium in the hope of finding a better life. In response, the powers-that-be in Elysium either shoot down the shuttles or immediately deport anyone who made the dangerous journey.

Despite the name of the movie, most of the story takes place on Earth. More specifically, it unfolds in Los Angeles, as Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa toils in a dead end factory job while dreaming of a better life in Elysium. In this grim vision of the future, robotic cops brutalize Max and anyone else who challenges their power structure. Meanwhile, android parole officers offer no empathy at all to Max and other former criminals. This is a world built by the rich to support themselves while keeping everyone else in squalor. Unfortunately, that’s a theme that feels even more prevalent in 2023 than it did upon the movie’s original release in 2013.

After being exposed to a fatal dose of radiation at his job, Max’s desperation escalates. The only thing that can save his life are the healing machines on Elysium, which are solely reserved for “citizens.” Blomkamp also includes some unsettling body horror as Max gets cybernetically enhanced in order for his rapidly fading body to maintain its strength. His operation is particularly unsettling because it looks brutal and painful. Max may not be the most sympathetic protagonist, but it’s hard not to feel empathy for his plight.

Matt Damon’s ‘Elysium’ Co-Stars Include Jodie Foster and Diego Luna

Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

A pre-Rogue One Diego Luna co-stars as Julio, Max’s most loyal friend on Earth, while Alice Braga co-stars as Frey Santiago, a woman who grew up with Max in an orphanage. In the present, Frey is less concerned with Max after drifting away from him. Instead, Frey wants to save the life of her leukemia-stricken daughter, Matilda (Emma Tremblay). Jodie Foster is technically the main villain as Elysium’s Defense Secretary, Jessica Delacourt. But she actually has a lot less screen time than Sharlto Copley’s deranged Agent M. Kruger. It’s Kruger who hunts down Max on Earth and becomes an even bigger menace than Jessica. He’s also oddly funny, with a uniquely off-kilter personality.

Elysium has a very bleak view of the future, and by extension, the past as well. But Blomkamp’s story offers just enough hope to keep it from being overwhelming. It’s not a pretty look at who we are as a society, or what we might become. Yet it is a compelling allegory, with a touch of optimism that things could improve if humanity can embrace its better nature.

What Is ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ About?

Image via Sony Pictures

South African director Jonathan Liebesman also uses the City of Angels as a backdrop in Battle: Los Angeles. But unlike Elysium, this sci-fi film is very much set in the present. It’s not a social commentary either. Instead, it’s an unabashed sci-fi flick that doubles as a war movie. In an alternate present, aliens suddenly attack the Earth in a coordinated assault around the world. The film only lightly touches on the global conflict while keeping the spotlight on a group of marines in Los Angeles during the war’s early hours.

Liebesman’s shaky cam approach gives Battle: Los Angeles the feel of a documentary even though it’s definitely not a found footage flick. Nor is there a camera crew embedded with the marines. Instead, this is simply Liebesman’s technique to put the audience in the middle of the action. More intriguingly, the perspective of the movie never really steps away from Aaron Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, and his fellow marines. This is truly their story from start to finish.

That choice allowed the aliens of Battle: Los Angeles to be even more terrifying than many previous cinematic invaders. Educated guesses are made about the aliens’ motives within the film, but they are simply guesses. The only thing we know for sure is that the aliens seem intent on systematically wiping out humanity with a methodical approach to decimating both the military and civilian populations. The laser focus on Michael and his unit makes the war feel hopeless, simply because there is almost nothing they can do to turn the tide of battle. Even survival may be too much to ask to hope for.

Aaron Eckhart’s ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ Also Stars Michael Peña


The film does take the time to establish Michael’s backstory as an Iraq War veteran who survived a previous deployment while his unit did not. That lingering resentment plays into the way his new unit deals with him in this movie. Michael’s new commanding officer, 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), is well aware of his history. Corporal Jason “Cochise” Lockett (Cory Hardrict) also has a more personal grudge against Michael because his brother was killed in action alongside the rest of Michael’s unit.

Michael Peña has a strong supporting turn as Joe Rincon, a civilian father whose remaining family comes under the protection of Michael and his unit. Joe and his young son, Hector Rincon (Bryce Cass), serve as reminders about what the Marines are fighting for in the face of overwhelming odds. They also bring out the humanity of the remaining group even as things become increasingly desperate.

‘Battle: Los Angeles’ Has Disconcerting Damages

Image via Sony Pictures

There’s also an aspect of Battle: Los Angeles that Liebesman may not have planned. As someone who lives in Los Angeles, I can say that it’s very unsettling to hear that familiar neighborhoods, landmarks, and locations have already been destroyed. Liebesman doesn’t show all of this destruction on screen, but the viewers’ collective imagination fills in the gaps. Los Angeles is literally on fire in the latter half of the movie, and it’s also a devastating visual that captures just how much has been lost to the alien scourge.

If the film had simply been about wanton destruction then it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact. Instead, it’s the humanity of Michael’s unit that allows them to reconcile their differences and stay together even when it would have been easier to give up and flee. More intriguingly, the movie doesn’t wrap up the alien conflict by the end of its runtime. Instead, it simply offers hope that it can be ended in humanity’s favor. That’s a refreshing change from most Hollywood flicks.

Battle: Los Angeles and Elysium are two very different sci-fi stories that just happen to share a few common elements. But both movies are underrated gems that deserve more attention. If you haven’t seen them before, check them out on streaming while you still can.

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