Friday, August 16, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp.
Written by: Neill Blomkamp.
Starring: Matt Damon (Max), Jodie Foster (Delacourt), Sharlto Copley (Kruger), Alice Braga (Frey), Diego Luna (Julio), Wagner Moura (Spider), William Fichtner (John Carlyle), Brandon Auret (Drake), Josh Blacker (Crowe), Emma Tremblay (Matilda), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Sandro).

Unlike particularly every other big blockbuster of this summer, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium left me wanting more, not less. This is a more ambitious film than Blomkamp’s debut – District 9 – but doesn’t have the same overall impact of the previous film. The biggest reason for that is because Blomkamp has so many ideas that he wanted to get onscreen, and the run time of 109 minutes just isn’t quite enough to fit them all in. I wanted to spend more time in the dystopia of Los Angeles in 2154, more time in the utopia of the Elysium itself – the orbiting space station populated by the rich – and I wanted all of the characters to be a little more fleshed out. One of the things District 9 did so well is that it never let either its political allegory or the special effects get in the way of the very human story of its protagonist – something Elysium doesn’t quite manage. Still, in a summer that has had mostly disappointing or uninspired or simplistic blockbusters, Elysium joins Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim as my favorites of the season. And if I was left wanting a little more, it’s because Blomkamp’s film is that rare blockbuster that I feel could have sustained a more substantial running time.

The year is 2154. We are told that the world essentially collapsed late in the 21st Century (why, the movie doesn’t say – which will bug some, but didn’t really bug me – could the movie have given a really satisfactory answer anyway? And why would the characters spend their time talking about something that happened decades ago anyway?). The rich (or 1% if you will) built a giant space station known as Elysium, where they continue their lives just as before. In what we see of Elysium, everything if golf course green and perfect. The rest of humanity is stuck on Earth – which, if what we see of L.A. in this movie is representative of the planet as whole, is about one step away of what Wall-E had to deal with. They work menial jobs to support the lifestyle of the Elysium residents, and are policed by robots. On Elysium, everyone has machines that will cure virtually every disease known to mankind – so they have become pretty more immortal. On Earth, healthcare is an even more hellish nightmare than it is now. And just to add another level of allegory to the movie, almost everyone in L.A. is Hispanic – and speak Spanish as much as English – whereas almost everyone on Elysium is white, and if they speak something other than English, it’s French.

The protagonist of the movie is Max – and the performance by Matt Damon is one of the film’s chief strengths. Because Blomkamp spends so much time on the plot mechanics, character development isn’t something he has much time for. Casting Damon is a stroke of genius, because he’s one of those actors audiences instantly identify with – you don’t have to spend time setting Matt Damon up as a good guy – we already known he is (Hitchcock often did the same thing with actors like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant). He’s an orphan, who has spent time in jail for car theft – but is trying to turn his life around. He has a job in a factory building the very robots who abuse him – and its here where he has an accident that exposes him to radiation that will kill him in 5 days. Not wanting to die, he’s determined to get to Elysium to be cured. First though, he has the steal secrets directly from the head of his old boss (a slimily perfect William Fichtner) for a cyber punk coyote (Wagner Moura – delivering the movie’s best supporting performance) to pay for his passage. Oh – and he also runs into his childhood flame Frey (Alice Braga) who has a daughter with leukemia.

The movie will be written off by some as a liberal fantasy – and it’s easy to see why. The folks on Elysium are clearly the 1%, exploiting the earth bound 99% to make as much money as possible. When you add in the advanced healthcare they get, while the people below have next to nothing, and the implicit commentary about U.S. and Mexico, you do in fact have liberal’s nightmare – a worst case scenario of where everything is going if the conservatives get their way. The villains of the movie are represented by Jodie Foster’s Delacourt, Elysium’s defense minister, who would rather shoot down and kill Earth refugees trying to get to Elysium than capture and deport them – and justifies everything by talking about the “children”. Foster makes a strange vocal choice for Delacourt, which I would be annoyed with, except I often like it when actors make strange vocal choices with their characters for no other reason than to amuse themselves – and to help disguise an underwritten role, which Foster’s certainly is. The other bad guy is Kruger (District 9‘s Sharlto Copley), a “sleeper” agent on Earth, who is essentially an insane Minuteman, patrolling the border, and exterminating everything with extreme prejudice – but of course thinks that if everyone would just listen to him, things would be much, much better.

Looking back over what I’ve written so far, I seem to be harder on Elysium than my true feelings on the movie itself. There is no doubt that Elysium would have benefitted from either trimming down some of its political overtones to focus more on the details of the characters and the plot, or from a more expansive running time that would have allowed Blomkamp to more fully explore everything. Perhaps there is a longer cut of the film that we will get to see one day (I hope so). So while Elysium is far from a perfect film, there is also so much in the film to admire. Blomkamp once again proves himself to be a great visual director – the slums of Los Angeles is one of the most distinctive physical environments in any movie this year, and they are contrasted nicely with what we see of Elysium (even though I wanted to see more). There are a lot of nice touches – like the parole officer – that makes the world feel lived in. The special effects in the movie are excellent – and you never get the sense that Blomkamp is using them in place of his story, but to add to it. Blomkamp doesn’t feel the need to pump up the action – and at times, even takes a long view of the action (as in the shooting down of the ships trying to get to Elysium). While the movie does devolve into a typical action movie climax – it’s handled much better than most action movies, without an over reliance on rapid fire editing or shaky camera work to artificially goose the action. And while I may have wanted a little more character development in pretty much every character in the movie, I cannot find much fault in any of the performances – all the actors are quite good.

I mentioned Pacific Rim off the top of this review, and said that Del Toro’s film from July and Elysium are my two favorites in terms of the big budget blockbusters this summer. That’s true. Pacific Rim may destroy as much, or more, of the world as the rest of the blockbusters this summer, but also didn’t forget about the characters, and had visual flourishes worthy of Spielberg in top blockbuster mode (the little girl in particular is haunting). Elysium on the other hand is the one blockbuster this season that seems to have something more on its mind rather than just mindless destruction and special effects. Those can be entertaining – and often were in the big movies this summer – but it also gets tiring. Elysium at least attempts to do something more in the blockbuster format, and I admire the film for doing so. If I'm still a little disappointed in the film, it’s because District 9 proved how great Blomkamp can be – and Elysium is no District 9.

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