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“Elysium” Review: Raging Against the Space Machine

Elysium - PosterWhen I listed the movies I was most looking forward to this year, this was the movie that topped the list.  And back then, all I had to go on was that it was writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9, that it was set in the future and that it starred Matt Damon.  And really, all I needed to know was that Blomkamp was doing a new movie.  That’s how much good will he earned with District 9 in terms of both action and story.  While Elysium doesn’t quite reach the heights of that movie, it’s still a very good movie in its own right.

The year is 2154 and the Earth is a polluted, overpopulated and horrid mess.  Cities don’t so much exist as they meld into giant messes that combine shanty towns, landfills, ghettos and suburbs.  Fires run rampant through the streets.  There’s no vegetation to be seen anywhere and dust is the most common denominator.  Medical care is scarce and limited.  Most people have turned to some sort of crime just to get by.  If you’re a citizen of Earth, this is your life: a hard struggle for everyday survival on a world that’s run by mechanized police officers and other servants of the lords of Elysium.  However, if you’re rich, powerful and born into the right family, you spend your life in Elysium, an orbiting space station that dominates the skyline.  It’s controlled atmosphere provides perfect weather every day.  There’s plenty of comfort, food and joy.  Advances in medical technology allow for anyone’s health issues to be instantly resolved.  Every day is a picnic or a party — honestly, the only times you see Elysians is when they’re out on their yards, having drinks and chatting by their verandas as they look down on pristine gardens.

In the middle of all this, two orphans from Los Angeles, Max and Frey, grow up and take diverging paths.  Frey (Alice Braga) becomes a nurse, caring for many of the poor citizens and her own daughter.  Max (Matt Damon) becomes a thief, until he’s captured.  The movie starts as he is trying to build a steadier life.  He works at the factory that builds the mechanized soldiers of John Carlyle (William Fichtner), Elysium’s most powerful military contractor.  When an accident at the plant exposes him to an elevated dose of radiation, Max seeks out Spider (Wagner Moura), an underworld smuggler/coyote that runs the suicidal runs at Elysium for desperate people looking for medical aid.  In order to get Spider’s help, Max is going to have to do a favor for Spider — a favor that’ll put him in the crosshairs of Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her favorite hunter, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Elysium - Max and FreyIt’s been interesting to see how Hollywood has reacted to the events of the last few years: the Great Recession, the collapse of so much of the global economy, the Tea Party & Occupy movements, the Global War on Terror, the debates (sometimes violent) regarding immigration across much of the First World, riots, uprisings and violence around the world.  Some of that permeated last summer’s The Dark Knight Rises.  But it wasn’t as upfront or as straightforward in its allegory as Elysium is with its.  I mean, here the 1% have literally left the Earth behind and the rest of humanity to die, but they’re still tethered to the planet due to gravity and to the labor they need the downtrodden to do for them. Just don’t dare breathe on them or their robot soldiers will break you!

With two movies under his belt, it’s clear to see that Blomkamp is interested in melding sociopolitical commentary with striking visuals and action.  All of which I approve.  The difficulty is finding the balance.  In District 9, the commentary occurred during the first hour and change while the last 30 minutes or so were nothing but action.  Here, the action and commentary take turns but both feel more direct.  Nuance is in short supply in here and I wonder if Blomkamp wouldn’t have benefited from a writing partnership to help him flush out and tweak his ideas.

Visually, however, there is no second guessing it. The movie is beautiful to look at — specially on IMAX.  The dust and grime of Los Angeles is ever present.  The sweat and blood are palpable.  The shots of Elysium hovering in space call back to a serene and peaceful place that’s just out of reach.  The station itself is clean, pristine, verdant and perfect.  And when action happens, it’s impressive. Punches hurt. Explosions destroy with aplomb.  Blomkamp knows how to shoot a picture you want to see.

Acting-wise, Damon does a good job with Max, but characters with shady pasts who are forced into action are kind of his thing.  He can do them in his sleep.  Alice Braga is tasked with being the emotional center as Frey and she acquits herself adequately with limited time.  Jodie Foster snarls and uber-cunts her way as Secretary Delacourt. She does a great Donald Rumsfeld impression for the person tasked with defending Elysium against all threats and enemies and has no compunction about removing those threats as she sees fit.  Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura and Emma Tremblay all do good work with their various roles.

Elysium - KrugerBut if there is one standout performance, it is that of Sharlto Copley as the brutal, tough, dangerous and ruthless Kruger.  It’s about 180 degrees from his Wikus from District 9 or Murdock from The A-Team.  There’s nothing funny about Kruger.  He’s a snarling, calculating, killing machine that lives for the freedom to bring as much pain as possible.  He threatens children, laughs at the starving masses and only loses his cool when his targets get away.  Ironically, he does not live on Elysium nor is he appreciated by the President for how he kills desperate illegal immigrants trying to reach Elysium.  In a way, it’s interesting to contemplate how Delacourt uses Kruger and how Kruger is allowed to run off his leash and how it compares to abuses done by military personnel in the War on Terror.  Not saying it’s an obvious comparison but it’s something that feels hinted at by Blomkamp.

The movie benefits from the incredible designs from Philip Ivey (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) who manages to make each environment beautifully unique.  The make-up team led by Gitte Aven (Elf, The Cabin in the Woods) and the costume design of April Ferry (Big Trouble in Little China, Terminator 3) also does a solid job of juxtaposing the Earthlings from the Elysians in a way that helps us draw those lines between the two groups as well as building the impressive power armors that Max and Kruger use to fight.

Is the movie enjoyable? Absolutely. Watching Kruger hunt down Max and their duels on both Earth and Elysium are great.  Blomkamp’s eye for action continues to be impressive. I’d love to see him direct one of the major action movie franchises eventually — if he directed one of the new Star Wars sequels, I think he’d do a great job. However, the movie does suffer from how serious it is.  District 9 was able to occasionally have fun with itself (Think of Wikus and Christopher’s assault on MNU).  Elysium lacks any humor.  The characters are grim and serious.  Admittedly, so is their world, but it’s surprising that but for a few early cracks, there’s almost no laughter in this movie.  951023 - Elysium

Likewise, while I can agree with some of the sentiments Blomkamp is trying to present, it’s never fun to get hit upside the head with barely-disguised allegory. By design the movie is presenting an extreme version of our future.  But at times it does feel as if Blomkamp is bent on making sure we cannot miss his message.  This, to me, works against the movie.  There’s no need for Foster’s Delacourt to be so over-the-top bad.  Or for Fichtner’s Carlyle to be so detached and distant to what’s happening to Max.  This kind of distant nobility screams more France during King Louis XVI’s court than the distant future.  In painting such stark portraits between the haves and have-nots, Blomkamp is doing his story a disservice.  Would it have been better to have had it balanced out with differing opinions from both Elysium and Earth?  Perhaps.  But even the nice Elysian President isn’t for helping the downtrodden on Earth.  He’s too busy going from fundraiser to fundraiser it seems.

Do I recommend you give Elysium a try?  Absolutely.  It is a good movie.  An enjoyable movie.  Is it as strong as District 9?  No.  Perhaps that is the problem Blomkamp will have going forward:  his first movie was akin to Appetite for Destruction and we’re just hoping he has a strong, long career that doesn’t fade after such a great first outing.  All the same, the action impresses, the effects dazzle and you enjoy your time on Elysium.  Blomkamp continues to be one of the best young writer/directors working today.


One comment on ““Elysium” Review: Raging Against the Space Machine

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