Sunday, September 1, 2013

Elysium - Matt Damon is THE LAST WHITE MAN ON EARTH

NOTE - Yes, I would like, once again, to apologize for some of the hold-up with entries lately.  There had been some technical issues to sort out with the computer.  

Some of them still are getting sorted out, but by and large, things are running again.

What does this mean for you, the readers - among other things, I'm gonna be running on fast-forward to get caught up here.  So be braced for entries in pretty rapid fire over the next week or so while we get up to speed. I promise, this will get back on track soon.

There's always a grain of salt that needs to be taken when a director's first film knocks it out of the park. On one hand, you want to believe this is just them getting warmed up and that they're gonna keep succeeding with each new creation, and as a result, the expectations tend to be very high - some would argue unreasonably so.

So when, after four years of staying low to off the radar, Neil Blomkamp finally made his follow up to the surpise hit (and one of my favorites of 2009) District 9, I found myself feeling this: the film could be really good, but it's also probably gonna get raked over the coals both by the critics and the audience.

Turns out I called it pretty well - despite building some solid hype, Elysium has opened to some rather mixed reception. With this in mind, I went in further reiterating my earlier assumptions - I expected a generally good movie, but also kept reminding myself not to expect another District 9, lest that film write a check Blomkamp couldn't cash.  All in all, I think I managed to do a good job with keeping them distanced, though I can't promise I won't invoke his earlier work at points, but we'll get to that when we get to that.

Continuing with the style that made him such a standout when he first hit theaters in 2009, Blomkamp again uses science fiction to explore contemporary issues.  In this case, rather than seeing Apartheid through an alien lens, he takes the reins of the 99% vs 1% class struggle, health care, and immigration.  The result is certainly ambitious, both in terms of technical aspects and message, but not without its slips and fumbles.

Taking place in the year 2154, the movie offers a scant amount of background - the Earth has become overpopulated, over-polluted, and riddled with disease.  In response to this, the Earth's wealthy elite have taken their toys and shuttled off to the orbiting space station Elysium - a glimmering paradise with advanced technology that allows its people to live free of disease or care.  Access to Elysium, of course, is heavily guarded, and those on Earth who seek to go there risk arrest and deportation, or die trying. Within this setting, we follow Max (Matt Damon,) a former car thief who's made reaching Elysium a goal since he was a child, and has tried to play by the rules to do so. Unfortunately, this plan goes awry when an accident at his job hits him with a deadly burst of radiation and 5 days to live. On borrowed time and sacked by an uncaring boss (William Fitchner, in a role that is rather comic in how aloof he plays it,) Max strikes up a deal with Spider (Wagner Moura,) a man who's made a crusade out of helping Earth's people make it to Elysium.

I'll say this much for the idea - the cold vacuum of space IS more daunting than your standard issue gated community.

Desperate, Max agrees to a dangerous plan - outfitted with a specialized Exo-Suit, he takes part in a plan to swipe codes to allow access to the station. Of course, in true film luck style, the data he swipes is actually more valuable than he realizes, being part of a plan arranged by Elysium's ruthless secretary of security, Delacourt (Jodie Foster.) Max now finds himself a man on the run, pursued for what's in his head, with multiple sides seeking what he holds, and inadvertently pulling his former flame (Alice Braga) and her child in along with him.

"What was that?  Did I, or did I not ask you to NEVER bring up the movie Stuck On You around me?"

The story of this film is something of a mixed bag the more I think about it. The premise certainly isn't bad, if a little bit well-worn (the idea of a stratified society where the wealthy live in splendor and the poor in squalor has been a staple of sci-fi cinema as far back as Fritz Lang's Metropolis.)  Granted, this is because it speaks timeless aspect of that issue.  Unfortunately, this film doesn't really have much new to say on the matter. That said, it makes good use of the old concept as a setting - though that's more a matter for cinematography than story in this case. Blomkamp's script certainly provides some interesting touches - such as the fact that much of Elysium's control on Earth is enforced through androids rather than an actual human presence - the only human agent we see of theirs on Earth is the dangerously insane Kruger (Sharlto Copley, easily the cast's MVP.) It's an odd balance the film has struck - the world it crafts has a lot of interesting details to it, but at the same time, the setting feels very underdeveloped - with questions of how this station project was approved and got off the ground largely left unaddressed. We're simply put in the middle of it and just told to ride with it.

Beyond the world crafted, the plot is rather straightforward.  Which, in some ways, is part of what hurts the film as a follow-up; Most notably in how this film crafts its conflict. Again, despite my best intention otherwise, this is one of those areas where I'm going to have to begrudgingly invoke D9. One of the reasons the film garnered as much praise as it did was the surprise over Blomkamp's even hand in depicting all sides in the conflict, especially compared to James Cameron's Avatar of the same year it came out.  While we were expected to feel sympathy for the prawns, and at points, even Wikus, the film never tried to paint either side as without faults, and even some of the human arguments could be, while not necessarily lauded, at least understood. It played in shades of grey and did so in a way that had been somewhat lacking in recent sci-fi films at that point (again, Avatar.) By comparison, the narrative in Elysium feels considerably more black and white and, at times, simplistic. This was, in all honesty, disappointing to see, especially after reading some of Blomkamp's interviews about the film. It's clear he has a strong message he wants to send here, and as a result, the delivery here is about as subtle as a hit-and-run. Which is the really sad part of this - I agree with the point he's trying to make, but I still can't say I feel he did a good job in how he makes it here.  His message paints it in a very oversimplified light, ignoring the fact the problem isn't as basic as it's made out to be here (which leads to a minor spoilers note about the ending that bugged me that I'll get into beyond the tagged cut.)

Like the story, the characterization within this film is simplified to the point of being problematic.  The cast make some efforts to make the most of what they have - in particular Foster, who, one quick line aside, is a very one-dimensional ruthless character - but the fact is, they can only do just so much with so little.  The actor who has the most success of making something out of nothing here is, oddly enough, Copley. His character is a straightforward psychopath - he could have easily been a simple thug, but Copley turns him into a mix of gleeful maniac and darkly cartoonish. He's good at his job and he LOVES doing it - which makes him both entertaining to watch at work, while at the same time, we wouldn't want to be in an enclosed space with him.  The only other person who really has much depth to his character, and again, this is largely more a result of the actor than the script would be Moura as Spider - the film at first making his actions seem more like a business before slowly revealing that he genuinely believes in helping as many people get to Elysium as possible. The cast is merely present. They're not bad, but you can only commend them for just so much under the circumstances.

"If THIS doesn't take first prize at this year's Halloween party, NOTHING WILL!"

The one area where this film actually excels is in its visuals. The twin worlds - the pristine Elysium and the barren Hell of Earth, are both brought to vivid life with a great amount of thought put into the various little pieces in them. Most notably in the automation - as both worlds have a strong mechanical presence keeping everything running from police work to factories and, in one amusing case, acting as a parole officer. It's something of an unusual contrast in a way - for as simplistic as the story is, the setting it's given has clearly had a great amount of thought put into it, and feels like a very lived in world as a result.

As much as I've gone into the faults of this film, it still feels strange to say, I didn't dislike the movie. It still makes for a visually rich science fiction film with some satisfying action sequences and some good performances. It's just unfortunate that, for a film that Blomkamp clearly wanted to have a significant statement attached to, its message feels ultimately simplistic, going for the emotional throat (in particular with one scene where I remain unclear on if Blomkamp fumbled at giving the film some heart, or if he was trying to lampshade such moments in other films - it could read either way) and painting not one, but two complicated issues in broad strokes that, to be honest, risk making the debates worse rather than better.

So it depends what you want out of it really - for a science fiction blockbuster, it's a good trip to take. If you're expecting the same sort of thought and exploration of issues that made so many people notice District 9, then you will likely walk away disappointed. This isn't to say D9 was a fluke, as some have claimed, but I do feel like, in the future, Blomkamp may want to reel in his ambition a bit more. At least in terms of theme, anyway. Visually, by all means, go nuts, but really, a tighter focus will help in the future.

...and making better use of the people you have to work with can't hurt either.
Seriously, this role could have been so much more.

That about wraps this one up.

Now then...


OK, anyone who's concerned about spoilers gone?

Good. I'll keep this brief. One of the big problems with the film's ending, and another area where the film's tendency to simplify things hurts - the discussion of Elysium's medical capabilities.  As stated before, this grants the people of Elysium borderline immortality.

When the film ends, the efforts of Max and Spider have rendered all the people of Earth with the status of Elysium citizens. As a result, the last thing we see in the movie is waves of ships bearing Elysium's medical pods going Earthside. A happy ending in theory...until you consider the fact that, at the start of this film, we were told Earth was overpopulated as well as disease-ridden. Sure, this takes care of the disease, but now we have an overpopulated planet that's NOT gonna be curbed by disease.  Yeah, I know that sounds cold, but the more I thought about this point in the ending, the more it dawned on me that, in solving one problem, it only fuels another. Unless the people of Elysium have also got technology to solve a lack of resources as well, things on Earth are risking getting ugly again REALLY quick.

Or I'm overthinking the ending. Just saying, the more I look at it, the less this happy ending really seems happy.

Anyway, till next time.

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