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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 … [continued]

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Josh Reviews District 9

How many really great sci-fi films have there been in the last decade?  It’s pretty slim, right?  OK, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie was pretty good… but before that?  I can think of Cloverfield (2008), Children of Men (2006), Serenity (2005), The Matrix (1999), Galaxy Quest (1999)… what else?  Signs (2002) and Vanilla Sky (2001) have a sci-fi twist to them so maybe they count.  That’s eight films.  Not a pretty substantial list, huh?

Well, here’s one to add: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.

You’re best off entering the film armed only with what little was revealed in the intriguing trailers: twenty years ago an enormous alien craft came to a halt in the sky over Johannesburg.  Almost one million aliens (derogatively called “prawns” by the locals) are rescued from the powerless craft.  These homeless creatures quickly develop into a new underclass in the city, dwelling in an enormous slum designated District 9.

That’s just the set-up.  I went into the film completely clueless about the actual plot of the film (and what a delight that was, by the way, in this age of movie spoilers!) and I won’t spoil it for you either.  I will tell you only that actor Sharlto Copley (a fresh face who I had never seen in a film before) does a tremendous job in the central role of Wikus van der Merwe.  Mr. Copley takes Wikus (and the audience) along on a staggering emotional journey over the course of the film.  When first we meet MNU (Multinational United) agent Wikus, he’s something of an affable buffoon, but his responses to the extraordinary events that follow are the meat and potatoes of the story , and when we leave him at the film’s end it’s hard to believe we’re leaving the same character.  It’s a tremendous performance, and one the success of the film really hangs on.

Well, that and the film’s astounding visual energy.  Mr. Blomkamp demonstrates terrific visual flair at the helm of this film.  District 9 was famously made after the film version of Halo (which would have been produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Mr. Blomkamp, as District 9 wound up being) fell apart.  District 9 was made on a very small budget (reportedly 30 million dollars) and shot in South Africa.  I have no idea how Mr. Blomkamp and his team possibly pulled this film off on that tiny budget, but my hat is off to them.  The film is a visual feast.  I have no idea how they brought all the “prawns” to life — CGI?  Make-up and prosthetics?  Some combination?  — but they are a phenomenal achievement.  The aliens are completely believable — and they’re also, … [continued]