A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2013
2013, R, 109 mins.
2013, R, 109 mins.
Matt Damon as Max / Alice Braga as Frey / Wagner Moura as Spider / Diego Luna as Julio / Sharlto Copley as Kruger / Faran Tahir as President Patel / Jodie Foster as Delacourt / William Fichtner as Carlyle
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
If 2009’s game-changing sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9 – a sleeper box office summer hit and a critical darling that went on to earn multiple Oscar nominations – introduced the cinematic world to the talent of South African director Neill Blomkamp then ELYSIUM certainly all but solidifies and confirms him as one of the pre-eminent action/sci-fi filmmakers of his generation.
Even though his newest film lacks the radical freshness and novelty
of DISTRICT 9, ELYSIUM still emerges miles ahead of other similar genre
efforts for how superbly it amalgams cutting edge visual effects,
dynamically staged action, and, yes, contemplative ideas-based science
fiction that manages to tell a futuristic tale that slyly comments on our
current state of affairs. Not
many other directors out there are as attuned to achieve this difficult
task as well as Blomkamp.
budgeted – but never once looked that way – DISTRICT 9 was a tale of
the not-too-distant future in which humans subjugated a recently arrived
extra-terrestrial population (if anything, it was a sharply drawn and intelligently
handled Apartheid and immigration allegory).
ELYSIUM is kind of a continuation of those themes, while more
ostensibly dealing with the notion of the widespread and nearly impossible
to overcome economic and social gap that exists between the upper one per
cent versus the lower classed 99 per cent.
To even further entrench his tale of tomorrow’s story of class
warfare, Blomkamp even throws in some commentary on modern day health
care woes, or more specifically, how those that have wealth have it,
whereas those that are penniless don’t have it.
Like great examples of science fiction, ELYSIUM is a portal
into the future that speaks towards the problems of the present.
It’s perhaps telling that when Blomkamp was asked about whether
he thought that his film was how he thought the world would be in 140
years, he responded, “This is today.
This is now.”
Granted, tales of
the disparity between the haves and the have-nots are as old as the
movies, but ELYSIUM perhaps makes up for its lack of overt novelty here by
still grounding its premise within a fantastically staged film universe.
In the dystopian Earth of 2154 there exists two primary classes of
people: First, the ultra-wealthy and disease-free class that live on a massive
space station known as Elysium, which offers a relative utopian existence
for all that reside there. It
is the brain child of the Armadyne Corporation, ruled over with an iron
fist by Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who defends her mega-rich Elysium citizens via any means necessary…and I do mean
any. The allure of the space
station is insatiable, especially considering that most homes have special
Med-Pods that can detect and instantly eliminate any type of injury or
illness. Pretty neat.
Now, as for those
not privileged to live up in the station?
Well, these one per cent remain on the ravaged, scorched, and
overpopulated Earth, which is comprised mostly of manual laborers,
rampaging gangs, criminals, and, yes, those devastated by disease and
poverty with no virtual hope of elevating their stations in life.
Blomkamp and the team that worked with him on DISTRICT 9 –
including production designer Philip Ivey – evoke a futuristic Los
Angeles (actually, Mexico City doubling for it) of grimy, dirty, and endlessly
decaying living conditions that’s a highly effective foil to the
pristine, clean, and chic beauty of the Elysium neighborhoods.
The greatness of the film lies in how well and immediately Blomkamp establishes these two distinct worlds and grounds viewers in
them. You feel like you're a
part of this world right from the get-go
From here we are
introduced to Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) an ex-con trying to go legit and
stay away from his parole officer (who happens to be a pill-dispensing
robot, in a droll little scene). He works a soul-sucking job in a factory constructing police
droids, but a freak accident one day exposes him to lethal dosages of
radiation that will kill him in six days.
Obviously, Elysium has Med-Pods, which would make curing his
condition a possibility. Alas,
Max has no way of getting there…that is until he hooks up with a old pal
(Diego Luna) who, in turn, takes Max to a smuggler (Wagner Moura) that
gives him special biomechanical implants – comprised of a make-shift
metal exoskeleton graphed to his body – that gives the sick Max a huge
boost in strength and speed. There’s
a catch: In exchange for this, Max has to help the smuggler literally take vital
Elysium Intel from the mind of Armadyne’s CEO (William Fichtner) and,
once successful, he will assist Max in getting up to Elysium.
Things become more complicated for Max when he reconnects with an
old flame, Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse whose daughter is dying of
Leukemia, leaving Max conflicted as to whether to help himself or the past-love of his life.
ELYSIUM is a
bravura showpiece of visual effects and location shooting ingenuity, but
Blomkamp is wise enough never to allow the film’s impressive and
awe-inspiring imagery (he had three times the budget of DISTRICT 9 to work
with here) suffocate the story and characters.
Even when Max adorns his mechanical suit, becoming a New Age
mechanical Frankenstein's monster on a mission, the film never loses sight of the humanity of
its characters. Damon’s
performance here is tricky, as he evokes in Max neither a good-natured
hero, per se, nor a reprehensibly selfish loner…but more of an
intriguing middle ground. More
than most other granite jawed action stars, Damon always manages to keep
his ass-kicking super heroes grounded, vulnerable, and with an everyman
appeal to compliment their lethal dexterity.
His scenes with the very effective Braga (poised, beautiful, and
always emotionally authentic) give ELYSIUM a nice dramatic undercurrent
amidst all of its fantastical imagery.
Jodi Foster, who for once gets to sink her teeth into an unrelentingly
hostile and venomous antagonist role, which she appears to relish.
Much has been made of her peculiar diction in her scenes, which is
perhaps not as large of an issue as the fact that Delacourt is kind
of an underwritten and one-dimensional baddie.
Thankfully, picking up the slack for her is the presence of the
great Sharlto Copley (who also appeared in DISTRICT 9) as Kruger, a merc
for hire that works for Delecourt to eliminate anyone that wishes to
enter Elysium...in the most sadistically icky manner possible.
There have been howling and freakish villains in action films
before, but Copley steps it up to a whole other level of monstrous
nastiness here. Kruger is pure
evil, and Copley seems equal to the task of making every scene he occupies
burst with an unpredictable level of edgy madness.
towards a sensational series of sustained and fever pitched action
sequences that Blomkamp knows how to handle with just the right levels of
in-your-face chaos (the director is attuned with matching the film’s more
introspective moments with balls-to-the-wall mayhem alongside the best
genre directors around). By the end of the film
I was left with feelings that, again, ELYSIUM felt more rigidly
conventional and derivative than Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9, but then again,
most recent sci-fi films aren’t that film’s equal either.
ELYSIUM does, though, save itself from its minor faults by emerging
as a remarkably immersive sci-fi futuristic thriller that further
showcases Blomkamp as the real deal.
It not only creates a magnificent movie world to ethereally lose
yourself in (which is what all great escapist entertainments should do),
but it also manages to have something to say while entrenching viewers in
it. ELYSIUM, as a result, is
an exhilarating and bombastically rendered feast for the eyes that just
happens to have thoughtful thematic undertones that make you think.