Friday, 6 September 2013

Elysium Review

In 2009 a weird little film came seemingly out of nowhere and blew my mind. It's such a bonafide classic that I seriously can't believe it was only four years ago. Chances are it blew your mind too. District 9 blew a lot of minds.
With it, semi-South African director Neill Blomkamp delivered one of the smartest, tightest science fiction movies in recent memory. A social allegory about apartheid, prejudice and xenophobia, using fantastical elements to comment on current real-world issues, it followed in the great tradition of sci-fi but did so without once becoming ponderous or slow - grabbing our attention with an inventive documentary style and propelling us into a world that could so easily be our own. District 9 felt deeply tangible and immediately relevant, staying with you and asking probing questions.

Blomkamp's second film, Elysium, is not like that.

Elysium does draw ideas from current social issues in a similar way - healthcare, immigration, capitalism, reliance on computerisation and the unfair distribution of wealth all play major parts - but, unlike District 9, the movie doesn't necessarily comment on them. They're used in the construction of this world and its story, but not in a way that can really translate to our own. Where the attitudes and politics in District 9 felt current and realistic, the ones in Elysium are pushed to absolute, fictional extremes.
This is a bleak future where Earth has become overcrowded and poluted, and the privileged few - the 1% - have retreated to a designer space-station called Elysium. While the rest of humanity struggle and suffer in Earth's wretched slums, the citizens of Elysium have lives that are carefree, decadant and, thanks to miraculous med-pods, free of disease and disability. This status quo is maintained by Earth's robot police state (controlled from Elysium) and by Jodie Foster's heartless defence secretary, Jessica Delacourt, who has no qualms about shooting down unarmed ships full of desperate refugees.
It's easy to see how this world ties into real issues, but it's equally obvious how cartoonishly extreme it all is. It's also a world that quickly falls apart if you look at it for long. The omnipotent med-pods almost completely break the premise - there's no conceivable reason they wouldn't also exist on Earth, and none is given - and a few points involving computers left me totally bewildered. It's hardly the flimsiest premise of the summer (in fact it’s one of the sturdiest) but the problems are there.

Luckily, while the premise is shaky, the details are exquisite. Blomkamp makes this world a real lived-in place, whether in Elysium’s gleaming corridors or the grimy, sun-bleached Earth. It’s a world with graffiti on the walls where every prop - from the weapons to the clothes to the ships to the robots - looks like it belongs in this place, and has done for years. This worldbuilding extends to the characters too; both the main cast and supporting bit-parts are real people with real lives happening in and around this story.
The character we follow through that story is Matt Damon’s Max, an ex-thief now working in a factory, building the self-same enforcement robots that we first see breaking his arm for backchat. Following an industrial accident, Max is blasted with radiation and told that he only has a few days left to live. With nothing left to lose he dons a strength-enhancing mechanical exoskeleton and vows to reach Elysium, at any cost, where he knows the equipment exists to save him.
This story would be compelling enough alone, but it becomes entangled in a larger political struggle on Elysium which pushes the stakes much much higher. The film never loses sight of the personal struggles at its core, though, with Max and others all personally invested for their own reasons. Max is surprisingly selfish, in fact, like District 9’s Wikus before him, but because we understand why (this is certainly a world that would breed selfishness) and because Damon is just so good in the role, we’re always behind him.

Also keeping us on Max’s side is the fact that the villains are downright despicable. Foster's Delacourt is a nasty piece of work - the embodiment of Elysium’s elitist cruelty - but her dirty work is handled by a mercenary named Kruger, played with insane glee by Blomkamp’s usual partner Sharlto Copley. Kruger is a psychopath - introduced as a murderer and a rapist - who only works for the authorities because it lets him kill without consequence. He’s genuinely scary, becoming more and more unhinged as the film goes on, and ever more determined to take Max down.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that, on top of the clever allegory and everything else that’s going on, District 9 is also a terrific action movie. As Max clashes with Kruger - and with various robots too - we realise that Elysium is the direct extension of that. The reason that the themes here are not as deeply explored as Blomkamp’s debut is that, first and foremost, Elysium is an action film. And it’s a damn good one.
The fighting is tight and close, feeling personal and exhilarating. Whether punching a robot or blasting at Kruger with a railgun, the violence is always emotional and driven by character. It’s also brutal - Max fails a lot more than he succeeds, even in his exo-suit, and he spends much of the film on his back, bleeding and bruised, which isn’t always the case for action heroes. We never get fatigued, however, because the action is constantly changing and introducing new and inventive elements - there are katanas and energy-shields and an awesome gun that fires exploding scatter-bullets.
The effects involved - the CGI ships and robots hunting Max - are gorgeous, looking every bit as real as the practical ones we see in Max’s factory. Elysium itself, a ringworld hanging just at the edge of space, looks wonderful, and there’s a fantastic stop-motion-looking med-pod sequence that I’m not going to spoil. The entire film looks amazing, honestly, from prop design to lighting to the way the action's shot. There's some interesting choices, like filming the space scenes in a handheld style and using some strange proto-bullet-time tricks during fights, but they're always engaging and they add to the rough, lived-in texture the film already has.

My one complaint - my only complaint, beyond the dodgy premise - is that, gorgeous as this film is, it looks just like Mass Effect. Everything from the robots to the orange computer interfaces looks exactly like those games. And Elysium itself doesn't just look like the Presidium, it is the Presidium, both within its white corridors and outside in its gardens. This is probably (hopefully) just a coincidence, but when Kruger starts shouting threats in a garbled South African accent, it's a coincidence that's impossible to ignore.
But in the end everything, including any unfortunate similarities to game franchises, comes together into one phenomenal experience.

No, Elysium is not as good as District 9. But, then, the last film I saw that was as good as District 9 was District 9. Despite drawing from social issues to build its world, Elysium is aiming no higher than just delivering an exhilarating action film - which it manages with violent ease. The fact that the setting and characters feel so real, that we care about everything we see on screen, and that this film can spark conversations about current affairs, show just how much smarter it is than the action we normally settle for.

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