Elysium Works if One Can Set Aside its Soapbox
- Thursday, August 08, 2013
Release Date: August 9, 2013
Rating: Rated R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout)
Run Time: 109 min
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Wagner Moura, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Faran Tahir
It comes from South-African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. His low-budget sci-fi surprise District 9 went on to be a critical and commercial hit, even garnering a Best Picture nomination. Now comes his follow-up Elysium. In broad stylistic strokes, it’s sort of District 9 on a much bigger budget, and to Blomkamp’s credit his creative strengths are elevated by the additional financial resources rather than buried by them.
Yet while Blomkamp’s visionary visuals and shrewd narrative instantly evoke positive comparisons to Nolan, Blomkamp remains decidedly inferior when it comes to thematic exploration. Where Nolan wrestles with existential fears (i.e. The Dark Knight’s terrorism allegory) to which there are no easy answers, Blomkamp preaches while oversimplifying the issues he raises. There’s no wrestling with Blomkamp; there’s only right and wrong, heroes and villains, along, respectively, left and right political lines.
In District 9, Blomkamp took on his native country’s history of Apartheid (and, by suggestion, the global war on terror). In Elysium, his parabolic target is illegal immigration (and also, by suggestion, universal health care).
Elyisum takes place in the year 2154, when Earth is one big slum of pollution, disease, and over-population. It is a violent and profane world (as the R-rating attests). In its orbit is a gigantic space station called Elysium, one that is more than just a spacecraft.
Elysium is like the best version of Earth: complete with its own ecosystem, beautiful homes and communities, instantaneous health care that can heal all forms of injury and disease... and available only to the ultra-rich. The Haves live in Elysium’s heavenly bubble while The Have-Nots are consigned (by force) to Earth’s squalor. This is the story of how the earthbound poor try to illegally cross the galactic border between the two.
To hammer his metaphor home from the outset, Blomkamp makes his 22nd-century Los Angeles look and sound like the worst version of contemporary Mexico City (where all of the Earth scenes were actually shot). He then adds in a layer of futuristic totalitarian force in which armed robots – brought to life through superb digital animation and seamless composition into real-world locales – roam the streets, keep order, and profile at random. Government-aid bureaucrats are also literal robots – polite, but in the most patronizingly programmed way. Citizens are stuck doing manual labor (i.e. the jobs nobody else wants), all in service of the rich elite who live safely in the closed-gate community up above.
The hero that emerges from the oppressed is Max (Matt Damon, Promised Land), a man with a sketchy criminal past now just trying to do right. His path of compliance is tested when a work-related accident puts his life in danger; a guaranteed treatment exists, but only on Elysium. To get there, he seeks out the help of the Earth-based underground group that works in trafficking illegals to Elysium.
Passage comes at a high price. It’s one that Max can’t afford until the group’s leader Spider (Wagner Moura, in a scene-stealing and career-making role) offers a seat on one of his rebel shuttles in exchange for Max going on a high-stakes mission: to retrieve data that would not simply help Spider’s trafficking business but could possibly reboot the entire system of oppression and provide free amnesty for all.
Their main obstacle isn’t just the multiple security barriers they must break but more so Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster, Carnage). She’s the requisite evil neo-con hawk of this heavy-handed political fable. In her hire is the violent mercenary Kruger (District 9’s lead Sharlto Copley), whose by-any-means-necessary tactics fit perfectly with Delacourt’s totalitarian ends.
There’s a solid foundation for the gritty effects-driven action on remarkable display here, both in the world that’s imagined and the narrative crisis conceived. The two civilizations are in direct contrast yet both so fully realized. It’s a superior blend of practical sets and digital enhancements, not just in terms of visual effects quality but also the authenticity of design. Blomkamp works the camera well, keeping it organic and hand-held on Earth yet smooth and slick in Elysium. This isn’t overly-indulgent sci-fi or an overly-dark dystopia; it’s more akin to the eerie believability of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Despite the socialistic sermonizing, the actual story itself is smartly constructed. The characters, too, mostly follow suit with their own interesting internal and relational dynamics. Foster’s Delacourt is the only flat-out caricature, and her stiff authoritarian turn only makes it more of a cliché, but the rest of the cast is solid. As in the Bourne films, Damon brings a spontaneous immediacy to a heroic archetype that’s really compelling. Copley’s merciless Kruger is an intimidating foe, both in brains and brute force, one that remains formidable even as Copley deliciously overplays Kruger’s violent impulses. Alice Braga (The Rite) and Diego Luna (Contraband) elevate good but more thinly-drawn roles (they serve as catalyst and support rather than characters) while William Fichtner (The Lone Ranger) is merely a stand-in for the heartless Corporate autocrat.
When you set aside the thematic liberal soapbox, Elysium works – and impressively so – as a brainy thrill ride, one that climaxes in a well-staged showdown between two mortal men rather than robots, monsters, ships, or the use of magic and/or super powers. It’s particularly refreshing to see a blockbuster entry sparked from an original idea rather than a sequel, existing property, or familiar title. Indeed, even more to its credit, Elysium seems a stand-alone experience by design, intent by its construct to avoid launching a franchise. Even if box office success dictates an unintended sequel, at least it will have been creatively earned.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Some cigarette smoking, some pot smoking. Slums where the effect of drunkenness and drug use is seen.
- Language/Profanity: Profanity throughout, with regular use of the F-word and S-word, but also occasional uses of other profanities (A-word, B-word), a couple of vulgar expressions, and the Lord’s name used in vain on a handful of occasions. Two instances of the middle finger being used.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A moment of intimidating sexual harassment, with rape being threatened.
- Violence/Other: A lot of gun violence with graphic results (a few heads blown apart; other bloody/gory results of gun violence). Surgical incisions made and seen. Bolts drilled into a person. A couple of knife stabbings, one sword stabbing, all with some level of graphic depiction. A few people seen bleeding out as a result of their injuries. A body is shot up with bullets. Other moments of bloody wounds and broken bones as a result of fights or gun violence. A person vomits.
Publication date: August 8, 2013
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