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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Chris's Review: ‘Elysium’ offers solid action & dazzling visuals

Neill Blomkamp's ELYSIUM, starring Matt Damon

Science-fiction is a genre you almost certainly always have to take with a sizable grain of salt. If not, then we should all be outraged at not having flying cars and robot butlers – or in Elysium’s case, personal cure-all medical tubes. Unfortunately, we do not and will not for the foreseeable future.

Where is my Rosie?
In Elysium, the new sci-fi action film from director Neill Blomkamp (District 9), the world is polluted and vastly overpopulated. In an effort to preserve their way of life, the wealthiest of the wealthy have made for themselves a new home on Elysium, a floating, circular space station hovering just above Earth like out of Kubrick’s 2001. It is close enough to remain connected, but far enough to escape the hardships and unpleasantries. Despite its apparent ruined nature, the film’s camera amazingly captures the vast blue-tinted planet at its most gorgeous, just off the horizon of Elysium. For most on Elysium, the Earth is nothing but an ignored memory and a window dressing.

 Whoops, wrong movie and wrong "Elysium"

Back on Earth, a ripped, bald-headed, and tatted up Matt Damon stars as Max, a criminal turned reluctant factory worker. He lives in the crowded, multi-racial slum that is Los Angeles coated with a permanent cloud of dust, graffiti, and trash – an extremely similar destitute setting as District 9’s Johannesburg (minus the aliens).

Interesting fact: Eminem was first considered for Damon's role in ELYSIUM
In a rather repetitive and unnecessarily saccharine framing device, Max, as an orphan child, dreams of escaping to Elysium, but is told it was not possible for someone like him, and as an adult, he knows this to be true. In an attempt to make a better life for himself on Earth, he keeps his head down and follows the rules. But when a brutal assembly line accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation, he will stop at nothing to gain passage to Elysium, where the technology exists and is readily available to heal him.

To do this, he reintegrates himself into the local crime syndicate/lower-class rebellion and with its leader, a spastic hacker named Spider. Weakened by the radiation, he is affixed to a robotic exoskeleton that might make Doc Ock jealous, with a built-in computer and USB port directly to his brain. If Max is able to complete one big job for Spider, then he gets a free ride to Elysium on a renegade transport and a chance to save himself.

And you thought today's politicians were ruthless . . .
Standing firmly in his way is an impenetrable class system, as in those "up there" and those "down here." Money and power bought them an escape, and now, it ensures their safety at all cost. Elysium’s citizens are oblivious and the space habitat’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (played palpable haughtiness by Jodie Foster) prefers it that way. Powerful, but restrained by Elysium’s president, Delacourt enlists the help of Kroger (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), a borderline insane sleeper agent hiding on Earth to stop Max.

Maybe Spike Lee's OLDBOY remake won't suck after all
Elysium’s two strongest aspects are the excellently shot action sequences and the beautifully rendered special effects and imagery. World building is such a crucial aspect of futuristic sci-fi and Blomkamp and his team have crafted an awe-inspiring dual world (the grimy slum and pristine oasis). Both seem so realistic and authentic as potential real world futures. They are sprinkled with touches of standard sci-fi fare, such as Star Wars-like droids, spaceships built like cars, and a scene-stealing, vintage novelty parole officer. But sprinkled just is not enough, and we are left wishing the film delved more into this fascinating world.

"I always thought Matt Damon was kind of a Streisand, but he's rocking the shit in this one." - The 40-Year Old Virgin
Damon proved himself a more than capable action star with the Bourne series and continues that here, even with a less stylized action as those films. Foster is commanding and wicked, but all too brief in what is, ultimately, an underwritten role. The real scoundrel here is Copley, who really shines in a demented and unhinged role (which holds out hope for his equally villainous role in the upcoming Oldboy remake). Each actor does their best with one-dimensional characters and clichéd action movie dialogue, while the supporting cast is mostly stuck with all-too-brief and thankless roles (especially Diego Luna and Alice Braga as Max’s closest allies).

"I am a woman and my child is sick" = her entire character
Like many ambitious sci-fi films, it is, of course, impossible not to notice the obvious political underpinnings of the film, as with Blomkamp’s District 9. Though universal health care and immigration reform are such integral aspects of the film, the film does not get overly preachy (until perhaps, the very end). It mostly presents things as this is an exaggerated version of what it is like today, but perhaps a change is needed or it could get worse. Politics and contemplation take a backseat to the in-your-face action, which depending on your sociological leanings, which might be good thing.

Pew! Pew!

Though flawed, Elysium is still an exciting and fun movie to watch. And perhaps too much is unfairly expected of Blomkamp after his surprising debut film. While perhaps not as good overall as District 9, Elysium is still far better than most sci-fi action films, especially this year (After Earth, Oblivion, etc.).

* * * ½ out of 5 stars

 Elysium Trailer:

 This review and others are also available on my page, here.

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