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Josh Reviews Elysium

September 23rd, 2013
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I was blown away by District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut (which he also wrote).  (Click here for my original review.)  That film — and Mr. Blomkamp himself — felt to me like it came out of nowhere.  I was dazzled by its combination of visual effects spectacle (made, even more impressively, for a tiny budget) and social conscience.  This appeared to be the emergence of a bold new voice in science fiction, and I was eager to see what Mr. Blomkamp would do next.

Four years later, his follow-up film was released: Elysium.  It’s fun to see Mr. Blomkamp working with a much higher budget and a cast of stars (including Matt Damon and Jodie Foster), and while Elysium isn’t as surprising and impactful as was District 9, it’s still a top-notch sci-fi spectacle with some heartfelt things to say about class and wealth in the world today.

Elysium is set almost 150 years in the future (2154, to be exact), but the film’s power comes from its depiction of a world that — while featuring technology far beyond that of today’s world, most notably a huge outer-space habitat, called Elysium, where the super-rich dwell in peace and quiet — doesn’t feel too terribly far removed from our own.  The divide between the richest few and the other 99% (if not 99.9999%) of humanity has widened into an unbreachable gulf — in this case, the literally unbreachable gulf between the slum-like planet Earth and the floating space-station of Elysium.  But while the existence of a huge space-station might seem like something from a hard-to-imagine future, the idea of an ossification of the divide between the rich and everyone else on the planet feels all-too-possible.  The film’s story focuses on the desperation and helplessness felt by that enormous under-class, knowing that a whole universe of health and happiness lies tantalizingly outside of their reach.

Matt Damon plays Max, a former thief who works a grunt job in a manufacturing plant.  Max’s life is rough (though when we see him walk to work through the slums in which he lives, it’s apparent that he’s lucky to have a job).  Max’s tough life takes a turn for the tragic when an accident in the plant exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation.  This could be cured by a few moments in the healing med-bays found up on Elysium, but stuck on Earth, without access to that medical technology, Max will be dead in five days.  Out of options, Max strikes a deal with the smuggler Spider — he’ll help Spider in a job to steal valuable information from the head of the plant at which he works (literally from his head, as the plan involves kidnapping that rich boss and tapping into the implants in his head that record valuable company data) in exchange for Spider figuring out a way to smuggle Max up to Elysium.  Of course, the theft goes terribly wrong, and soon Max finds himself on the run from a brutal assassin called Kruger (Sharlto Copley), whose job is to protect all of Elysium’s secrets.  Max also inadvertently manages to endanger his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter, making Max’s plight even more desperate.

As was the case with District 9, a great deal of the fun of the film comes from exploring this very fully thought-out sci-fi world.  Elysium is filled to the brim with visual spectacle and extraordinary visual effects, but the film isn’t just empty spectacle.  The visual effects are used to effectively flesh out this world, and that in turn elevates the power of this story about the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  There is some terrific action, much of it very visceral and at-times tough to watch.  Sometimes big-budget sci-films can feel very bloodless, with CGI people or ships fighting other CGI people or ships.  But in Elysium, everything feels REAL, and the action is very in-your-face and personal.  There are real human stakes in this film.  We feel the danger that Max and Frey are in, and when Max gets beat up (as he does a LOT in the film) we really feel that too.  But that’s not to say that the film is all dour — the action is also very fun and exciting.  I’m impressed by Mr. Blomkamp’s skill at wrapping a very socially-conscious story up in such a crowd-pleasing action-adventure.

Matt Damon is a very solid lead for the film.  It’s fun to see him play such a physical character, and also one who is a bit of a scoundrel (albeit a likable one).  Alice Braga is always wonderful on-screen, and here as always she brings a lot of soul to the character of Frey.  I do wish the script had fleshed her character out more, though.  Despite a decent amount of screen-time, for the most part Frey remains an idealized figure — as an example of the innocent purity of youth that Max longs for, and as the mother-figure desperate to protect her daughter.  I love the rare times when Jodie Foster plays a villain — she’s terrific fun as the tough-as-nails Elysium Secretary of Defense.  Diego Luna and the always-great William Fichtner are solid in small supporting roles.

The real revelation of the film is Sharlto Copley.  Mr. Copley was the break-out star of District 9, as an unknown actor anchoring that film.  He’s equally impressive here in Elysium, playing a character who is 180 degrees removed from the shy, nervous, somewhat pathetic character of Wikus in District 9.  As Kruger, Mr. Copley is a terrifying villain, an animal barely clothed in the aspects of civilization.  He’s a fierce killer, a maniac with a lot of big guns at his disposal.  Mr. Copley commands the screen every moment we are watching him.  Kruger is easily one of the best sci-fi villains I have seen in a long while.  This is a compelling character and a powerful performance.

After District 9, there is a bit of the familiar in Elysium, both visually (the slum-like settings of Max’s neighborhoods are quite similar to the slum-like settings of the South African alien ghettos in District 9) and in terms of the issues the film is addressing.  Elysium lacks the “I’ve never seen anything like THIS before!” punch that District 9 had.  But I think it’s unfair to judge the film too harshly for that.  How rare is it to find a film — especially an action/adventure film — that is really ABOUT something other than just popcorn-eating escapism?  (Star Trek was the sci-fi franchise long known for wrapping important messages in the cloak of an outer-space adventure.  However, despite Star Trek Into Darkness’ co-screenwriter Bob Orci claiming recently that Into Darkness was filled with social commentary, I’d argue that, while exciting, the two J.J. Abrams-helmed Trek reboot films have totally dropped the ball on actually being about anything other than spectacle.  So I am delighted to watch a big-budget sci-fi film that is different.)

If I’m going to criticize Elysium for anything, it’s for a few cheats in the third act that felt a little too easy to me.  The biggest would be that, on the enormous, miles-long ring-shape of Elysium, Max’s ship just happens to crash so conveniently close to the central computer core that he can run there in just a few minutes?  That stretched my credulity a bit too far.  (And it was unnecessary, too, since nothing we’d seen before suggested that Max couldn’t just log-in to Elysium’s systems from any computer terminal or access point anywhere on Elysium, rather than directly into the central core.)  But I must say that I enjoyed the film too much for a few things like that in the third act to bother me overmuch.

So, while I am not quite as evangelical about Elysium as I was about District 9, I can happily report that Elysium is a very exciting, very entertaining, and very thought-provoking sci-fi film.  It’s well-worth your time.

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