Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium is full action and
subtle social commentary

I confess, I have not yet seen director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 so I really had no idea what to expect when walking in to see his latest sci-fi/social commentary flick Elysium, except that they were both filmed in some squalid location in Mexico. The story is fairly simple: Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to make an honest living without falling back into old habits. He lives on an earth slightly more than a hundred years from now, one that has been over-populated and under-fed, with a lack of decent education and health care. Yes, these are the 99%. The 1% have fled the planet, living on a giant spinning wheel in earth's orbit, Elysium, which resembles a posh Beverly Hills neighborhood on steroids. Anyone from earth who tries to get to Elysium, illegals as they are called, faces immediate deportation or worse.

After an accident at Max's factory job that gives him a full dose of radiation and five days to live, he goes back to his criminal past to try to buy his way onto Elysium. But his former boss wants something in return … a code that can reboot Elysium and grant all of the "illegals" citizenship, allowing them to travel to the space station and partake of things like their miraculous healing machines. Max desperately wants to get to a machine, so he agrees to intercept the code from his former boss at the factory (who works for Elysium's Secretary Delacourt, who will stop at nothing to keep Elysium immigrant-free, including staging a political coup and installing herself as president), but finds out the operation will require an actual operation as the code is downloaded into his boss' brain … and it comes with a self-destruct code in case someone else tries to access it. Will Max survive long enough to get to Elysium and carry out his mission? Will Delacourt get the code from Max and fulfill her desires? Or will Delacourt's mercenary Kruger catch on to her plan and try to steal the code for his own military-style coup?

Right from the start of the movie, you know where Blomkamp's social commentary is heading with a space station full of "Haves" and a planet full of "Have Nots." This is set up in the film's prologue (with Max as a child) and carries through the film yet, unlike the social commentary of the baffling Oscar winner Crash which hit you over the head with it, Blomkamp simply establishes this future as what it is. It's been this way for a long time, so it's really just a matter-of-fact part of the story. Some people have questioned whether the commentary should be more in your face, but I don't think it's necessary. I appreciate not being pounded with the whole issue, but it's always there. It's why Max needs to get to Elysium to get healed, it's why Delacourt wants control of Elysium (and Kruger as well, to some extent). Even when the story shifts to the machinations of the coup, you don't forget why all of this is going on. It was subtle, and for that I applaud Blomkamp for showing that restraint.

While Blomkamp reels in his social commentary, he really cuts loose with the visuals and the action. The scenes of shuttles and androids are simply jaw-dropping. I would assume these are all CGI-created special effects but everything looks real. Placing these kinds of effects in the dirty, dusty environment of earth and having them blend seamlessly with the elements totally sells this as a real place and helps bring the viewer into the story. Matt Damon's performance also helps ground the film in reality. When Max gets sick and then risks his life to retrieve the data, you really feel for him. Even when his story takes a little detour when his childhood friend's daughter is dying, you feel his struggle when he has to tell her he can't help get her to Elysium.

On Elysium, Jodie Foster gets to sink her teeth into what may be her first real villain role, spitting out her dialog with pure venom. Her accent is a little off-putting though, because it looks like Jodie Foster but it doesn't sound like Jodie Foster and sometimes it seemed as if her dialog was dubbed. I just had a real disconnect, but it was still great to see her be pure evil (and interesting to note that she and Damon have only one scene together). Sharlto Copley, who starred in District 9, plays Kruger as a totally unhinged maniac with only one thing on his mind – killing. I was also jazzed to see William Fichtner pop up, however briefly. He always makes things more interesting. Kudos to Blomkamp, too, for not shying away from dealing out some gruesome fates to some of his characters (yes, some people actually explode).

Elysium may get slammed for what appears to be a big set up then shying away from the social commentary, but I appreciated the restraint. Blomkamp tells his story with a great cast and some amazing visuals, and you couldn't ask for anything more from a summer blockbuster. It's got a lot of intricate moving parts that keep propelling the story forward, but it's not going to make you feel that you just got preached at for two hours. I think the fact that the conversation among those who have now seen the movie, discussing the commentary or lack thereof, shows that Blomkamp have have accomplished exactly what he set out to do.