Friday, August 9, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews - Elysium

Elysium is the second major studio release for director Neil Blomkamp, perhaps best known for his work on District 9, another gritty sci-fi/social commentary piece. District 9 made waves for (among other things) its seamless visual effects, done on a rather shoestring budget but to incredible visual success.  No surprise, then, that Neil's background is entrenched in the world of 3D visual effects on a budget, having supplied them for such television fare as the CW's Smallville.  With this new effort starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, one would believe that any budgetary concerns are in the past.

Although I wouldn't call it a "follow-up", Elysium does tread a lot of the same thematic elements as District 9, although the set of metaphors in this movie tread much more familiar-looking territory.  The two movies both portray a stark separation between the haves/have-not's, the presence of baseless prejudice in the human collective psyche, and a sort of entrenched nationalism on the part of the elite in our societal structure. In District 9, the prejudices being illustrated were a little more in the abstract, as the object of hatred and mis-understanding was an insectoid alien culture.  Elysium, on the other hand, tells a thinly-veiled story of the US/Mexico border, only "Mexico" in this metaphor is the hopelessly polluted and over-populated planet Earth. The United States is represented by Elysium, an orbiting satellite filled with the mansions of the one per-centers looking down on the planet with the same predilections as Ozzy Ozbourne had for fans beneath his hotel balcony way back when.  Lest you think there might be some less specific metaphors in play, especially given Blomkamp's South African nationality, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and almost the entire supporting cast (at least where the "hapless denizens" are concerned) is Latino.

Matt Damon plays an Earth-bound worker (Max) given a terminal prognosis after a lethal exposure to radiation at his incredibly unsafe and exploitative workplace, and his only hope for a cure lies (of course) in the advanced medical facilities aboard the satellite...which, besides being in space, are zealously guarded by its citizens.  Max must enlist the aid of the 22nd century's equivalent of the coyote, and get his ass to Elysium. Oh, and along the way, fight for equality and bring hope to the masses and all that.

So, yeah, it's really preachy.  But does it work as a movie?  Short answer: Mostly, "Yes."

The Good:  Matt Damon plays a convincing every-man in Max, and the desperation and determination of the character's everyday life as a cog in the machine is convincingly focused and magnified through the lens of the more immediate conflict.  Sharlto Copley(The A-team)'s performance was the standout, however, as his intensely violent and determined portrayal of Kruger, revealed as Max's more direct nemesis, was incredibly well done.  Although Jodie Foster's portrayal of Delacourt hasn't enjoyed much by way of critical acclaim, I thought she did a fine job with the ballsy, ruthless defense minister of Elysium, charged with keeping the riff-raff off the station.  She plays a lion among lambs, and I thought it was a wonderful effort on her part.  Overall, the story is competently delivered, and the pacing excellent:  This writer/director knows how to pressurize before he lets the steam out in the more violent scenes, which I think is lost on a lot of the current crop in Hollywood.  Visually, the movie is very well done, as expected, but there were one or two scenes where the effects became overt.  I liked the camera work overall, especially during fight sequences:  It's not steady-cam-centric, as one might come to expect in a Matt Damon action vehicle.  Rather, it is both experimental and elegant in the way the camera, for example, exactly follows the sweeping arc of a thrown punch, all with the fist at center.  It is is focused and on-point without being clinical, and without losing detail in the action.  In certain scenes, the view switches between standard and helmet-mounted cameras, giving the audience a less omniscient perch that serves to anchor to the character's experience of combat.  The sets are excellent, and the textures used (dust, scabs, tears, decay, or the distinct lack thereof) are consistent visual reminders.

The Bad:   I'm all for metaphor in my sci-fi, and I think one of the best aspects of the genre is illustrating the concerns of mankind and how the future addresses them (or ought to address them). However, the best science fiction, in my view, boils the issues down to their essence, and doesn't need such direct and obvious metaphorical links to current events.  Such overt metaphor cheapens whatever message is being conveyed. The parallels drawn in this movie are simplistic caricatures, and it nearly ruins the narrative when you can practically hear the author's voice throughout:  "SEE how the closed borders inevitably result in human trafficking and exploitation of the huddled masses?  SEE how the blind nationalism results in exploitation and the loss of human compassion across borders?  SEE how the use of drone aircraft results in a disconnect between the soldier and the consequences of combat?  Oh, and Universal Health Care!!!" If you've ever thought to yourself, "You know, George Clooney should teach a class in how to portray the ethics of US foreign policy in a blockbuster movie, I'd sign up right away!", then this is the movie for you. Also, much of the movie's plot depends upon minutiae that doesn't stand up to examination, like the security systems surrounding the government of a space colony being remarkably easy to subvert, and machines capable of DNA coding that can re-build a person atom by atom, but are fooled into dispensing care to non-citizens by a forged brand on the skin.  These little things are beside the point, but then, the enjoyable aspects of the movie are ALL beside the point: Everything slaved to "the point" ends up being about as thought-provoking as the PSA at the end of every GI Joe cartoon.  If you disregard the "message" of the film, you'll end up looking elsewhere for stuff to think about, and it's an easy leap to start dissecting the film for plot holes (which invariably appear).


The Conclusion:  This is a good sci-fi action film, having a skilled director that knows how to construct good drama, and its intentions are in the spirit of the best science fiction. However, it falters where the specific and unabashed metaphor for current US politics is concerned, being altogether transparent and detracting from the film's supposedly future setting.

The Rating:  A solid 8 on a 10 scale as a sci-fi action/drama, but only rates a 3 in terms of social commentary.  Too transparent, too simplistic, too "now" to provoke anything in terms of conversation on the issues at hand.

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