Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elysium Movie Review

If Neill Blomkamp isn’t careful, he’s going to be forever remembered as a writer-director of allegorical science fiction. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but remember M. Night Shyamalan survived for a handful of films being known for doing something very specific and then became so hamstrung by a sense of his own greatness that his films became, one after another, more absurd and awful than the last. If District 9 was Blomkamp’s take on apartheid South Africa and immigration, Elysium is not just about a guy trying to illegally enter a forbidden and exclusive paradise to cure himself of fatal radiation exposure. Working on a larger scale and with a bigger budget, Blomkamp hasn’t lost sight of what makes a good movie work: namely good characters and story. He’s also made another technically sound piece of entertainment that puts most of the other big releases to shame. A coherently edited and structured movie? Who greenlit this thing? I’m almost shocked this sort of thing is allowed to pass muster.

Okay, there is a little too much squeezed out of the emotional cue card of the child in danger and Blomkamp would do better to focus on what I think he really wants children to stand for in his movies, which is hope for the future and a sense of responsibility we have to make things better for them. He gives us flashback scenes that show us Max (Matt Damon) as a little boy with his childhood sweetheart Frey (played by Alice Braga as an adult). These scenes are a little too over directed with too much emphasis on the idealism represented by a nun telling Max that each of us is destined for something special (do you think Max may end up being a Christ-like hero?) Filmed and edited with a dreamy quality, they feel cheap like something out of one of those cloyingly inspirational stories or even a TV movie.

The Elysium of the title refers to an orbiting habitat thousands of miles above the earth’s surface where, we’re told by opening titles, the wealthy fled at the end of the 21st century to escape overpopulation and disease. Now it functions as a new Eden where those with money can start over in a world without crime and sickness, where they have better-than-Star Trek “Med Bays” that can almost magically cure any illness or correct any deformity (even facial reconstruction after a grenade explodes next to your head). Living in this paradise also means living free of the guilt that might come from seeing first hand that the less fortunate don’t have it quite so good. Elysium has a political structure but its defenses are left to Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who metes out swift and deadly penalties to shuttles full of civilians trying to land illegally.

It’s hard not to empathize with Damon, who brings with him a history of roles requiring charm and personality, and of course the recent memory of his action hero Jason Bourne. On a character level it’s easy to stand behind Max, especially in light of the cold-hearted corruption of the Elysium politicos or his criminal associates, including a youthful and relatively innocent protégé played by Diego Luna, who, along with a couple of small children in danger, represent the easy go-to emotional heart of the film.

The citizens of Elysium still use French as a secondary language, which I suppose is meant as a way of recalling a time more than a century removed from our present when the rich and educated learned French. The lowly citizens of Los Angeles below speak a bilingual blend of Spanish and English, which is certainly a likely development for the next 150 years. This is a shorthand linguistic signal to indicate the class differences between the haves and the have-nots.

Really Elysium is just shamelessly about class warfare. It’s a warning cry about where some people see our current economic and health care systems leading us in the future. Blomkamp doesn’t really address the cost issues involved in his argument that everyone should have free access to these magical Med Bays. It’s nice to feel that everyone should be allowed to live free of disease and ailment, but I would guess that particular kind of medical treatment is prohibitively expensive on a universal scale.

Blomkamp doesn’t seem all that interested in hashing out the nuance of the political arguments inherent in his dystopian vision. He goes for the hard-pumping action that comes along with it. That is provided in the form of Kruger, an ex-military black-ops agent played by Sharlto Copley, whose job is to stop Max in his plan to steal organically encoded secrets from a representative of Elysium (William Fichtner) that will grant access to reboot and reprogram the entire computer system of the paradise in the sky. “It can make everyone in Los Angeles a citizen of Elysium,” says his criminal cohort.

The problem I often find with futuristic science fiction visions is that every time they solve a problem in the plot development with a piece of technology, they end up creating new layers of absurdity. Max is weakened by a lethal dose of radiation that will cause complete organ failure in five days. Thus his no limits desire to get to a Med Bay. To circumvent the problems with having an action hero who can barely walk, he’s fitted with a metal exoskeleton attached directly to his bones. This is supposed to give him super-human strength. But wouldn’t it still only be as strong as the bones it’s attached to? If the Defense Secretary of Elysium can track individuals from tens of thousands of miles away, why does she need to send a military unit in a helicopter to kill criminals through conventional methods? The more complex Blomkamp makes it so that people ooh and aah at the coolness, the more questions I have as a result. Why does Max use sarcasm with the police robots that want to search his bag, knowing full well that they are not prone to understanding that he’s not serious?

But still something about it all works pretty well. It’s rather thought-provoking – sci-fi action for the thinking crowd. You’re unlikely to see CGI effects looking much more convincing than this (at least until next year as these things have a way of continuing to get better and better while leaving the films that are only two years old looking like amateur hour) and Ian Smith and Julian Clarke, the same editing team that cut District 9, have a way of putting action together that doesn’t leave you dizzy and sick. This is a fine example of controlled action filmmaking techniques. Blomkamp reveals, in his second outing, that he genuinely has the goods, backed by a superb team of technicians, to make populous fare that simultaneously holds appeal for those seeking thematic elements on a grander scale than what most other filmmakers have to offer.

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