August 11, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium (2013)

It has been four years since I first learned who Neil Blomkamp is. It was 2009 when District 9 arrived in theaters and proceeded to wow audiences all over, even earning four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay). Needless to say, I loved that movie and have been anxiously anticipating his follow up. It has finally arrived. The big question is whether or not it lives up to Blomkamp's prior outing. I will say I did have a few worries based on the trailer, so with cautious optimism, I eagerly entered the theater and experienced Elysium.

My big worry going in was based purely on the look. The movie looks a lot like District 9, which caused a little concern that he was something of a one trick pony. I was afraid that the look was indicative of how the movie would feel. As it turns out, my concerns were, thankfully, unfounded. While there is a definite similarity, it goes no further than the surface.

Elysium is, essentially, a tale of the haves versus the have-nots. We are presented with a dystopian future where the planet is ravaged with pollution and overpopulation. The rich have decided to cut their losses. They have built a massive orbiting space station where they live. They have also take their technology with them, shown primarily with healthcare hat is so good and advanced that people can live virtually indefinitely. They are able to do this, in part, by standing on the backs of the working class down on Earth.

The movie presents a fully developed world. One that has distinct political similarities to the present. It is a world at is one massive shade of grey, nothing is black and white, regardless of where you live.

The story centers on Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con trying to live straight. He works a factory line job. One day, while at work, he get s accidentally dosed with a lethal level of radiation. He has mere days to live unless he can find a way to get to Elysium and use some of their medical technology. This leads him to a gangster called Spider, who sells black market IDs and flights to Elysium.

Max gets suckered into one last job. This is where the movie takes some cyberpunk elements from Johnny Mnemonic. There is some data thievery on and it turns out it is data the woman in charge, Delacorte (Jodie Foster), of security is looking for to deal with her own internal issues on Elysium. It is data that could shift the balance of power and change history if exposed. Hmmm.. Interesting parallel to current events that probably weren't even in play when the screenplay was written.

Blomkamp goes out of his way to keep Elysium operating in a realistic world of gray, despite a touch of melodrama here and there (particularly towards the end, although still effective). One of the things that makes it work so well is the refusal to create a typical Hollywood "hero". You may be used to Damon playing a hero, and here he is more a hero by default. He does we some altruistic tendencies, but his desire to get to Elysium is driven by his desire to not die. He becomes a sort of savior by default, a by product of the issues he is dealing with rather than something he sets out to purposefully do.

The story is driven by the intertwining of two stories, Max's need to get to Elysium and Delacorte's desire to stage a coup on the station. Neither has a direct vendetta against the other, but when paths cross it creates an opportunity for a change in the direction of the lives of everyone. It is pretty fascinating to watch. It is very non-traditional in how it unfolds. It has meaning of you want to equate it to today, it works as its own universe and possible extension of our times, and it is just flat out entertaining.

If there was one thing I could criticize it for, it is Matt Damon. Don't get me wrong, more often than not I really like Damon, he is a good action star because he actually knows how to act. My issue is that the character of Max is a bit harder edged than he plays him as. Heated, the performance is serviceable and does not hurt the movie tag much, but I think someone with a not more edge would have been better suited, not that I can think of who would make it better. By the same token, I suspect it was his involvement tat helped get the movie made. This could be an example of cinematic compromise to get a project made.

To turn it around, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley are quite good I'm their villainous roles. Foster is cold and efficient on her performance as a high ranking defense official intent on gathering more power for herself. Copley is a blast as the maniacal Kruger, a very old school villain. He is a rogue operative with no real allegiances, but once he is locked on a target, watch out. Then there is Alice Braga as Frey, she is Max's anchor, the emotional weight of the tale is carried with her, and while she doesn't have a lot to do, she is good in her integral role.

Neil Blomkamp has proven himself to be a formidable creative mind. A mere two films into his feature career, he has carved out a corner of the cinematic world to call his own, crafting worlds of depth, universes that are bigger than the stories tell. They have room for growth and development and conjecture while still telling for used stories. Elysium is a definite success and I early look forward to where he takes us next.

Highly Recommended.

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Wooly Rupert said...

I disagree. Compared to District 9, this was terrible. The sets are just District 9 hovels, I was really hoping for some world-building but we don't get it. He's so old school a villain, he doesn't really have motivation or anything, he's just there so Damon has someone to fight with. I was actually mad I wasted money on this.

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