Elysium

Posted: September 18, 2013 in Film reviews
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StarTrek64LetThatbe

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

Blomkamp exploded onto the film scene 4 years ago with his low-ish budget allegorical sci-fi film District 9, a South African set film about alien immigrants that made good use of South African shanty town locations with a tale mirroring apartheid and which introduced us to Sharlto Copley as the dishevelled hero.

Given a budget infinitely bigger to work with, along with it seems a lot of creative freedom, and an A-List star in Damon, Blomkamp has created a film that in many ways is very similar to District 9, but in many other ways is very different.

It’s the 22nd Century and Earth is divided into the haves who live on the giant space station of Elysium, and the have-nots, who scrabble to survive on an overpopulated Earth. Max (Damon) is an ex-con trying to go straight, working in a factory that makes police robots ( a nice irony given that police bots beat him up earlier for no other reason than they seem to have police brutality programming.) His dream is to make to Elysium, a land of wonder where medical technology is so advanced that they can cure any disease.

It’s something of a pipe dream however, until he receives a lethal dose of radiation at work. Rather than call injury lawyers for you, Max decides that now he has to get to Elysium, and he has to get there in the next five days before he dies. Throwing his lot back in with the criminal fraternity he agrees to help hijack information from the brain of a businessman, taking a copy into his own skull.

Unfortunately the information he gets hold of is something that can change the balance of power between Earth and Elysium, and something that Elysium’s Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Foster) is willing to kill to get a hold of.

Science Fiction has often been used as an allegory of real world issues, going back to Star Trek in the sixties, and earlier (consider HG Wells’ Molocks and Eloi) so there is a noble tradition at work here.

Unfortunately as allegories go, Elysium is about as subtle as a giant brick with the word ‘Brick’ painted on it. Given the nature of their brief run times (in the grand scheme of things) films often have to be less subtle than their TV cousins, but even so the brushstrokes at work in Elysium are so broad you could paint the Forth Bridge with just a few swipes.

To sum up succinctly. Rich =Bad, Poor = Good. So laughably unsubtle is the film that the businessman whose brain Max highjacks –who we’ve already seen is a nasty piece of work—actually has the word ‘Riche’ branded onto his cheek (as a quick aside the decorative scarring many of the rich have is just one of many nice touches in the film) just in case you didn’t realise, which is like someone writing EVIL in tippex on Darth Vader’s helmet…

Pretty much everyone in the film has characters so thin you can see right through them and they’re all familiar character types. So Delacourt is the cold, clinical, and of course evil, bureaucrat, and lord knows what was going on with her accent. Meanwhile Sharlto Copley has a blast as Kruger, the psychopathic agent Delacourt sends after Max, but his defining character trait is ‘mad’ and that’s about it.

Meanwhile Damon, who to be honest I’ll never be the biggest fan of, actually does a good job of imbuing Max with humanity, though again the ex-con trying to go straight but being pulled back into crime isn’t exactly original.

Alice Braga is Max’s love interest Frey. She’s a nurse and a single mother, and her daughter has terminal leukaemia. If only this was the kind of film where medical technology could cure any illness, eh?

Finally there’s Wagner Moura as Spider, who might be a noble revolutionary, or might just be a money grabbing people trafficker…it’s never quite clear…

The locations and effects are great, and the disparity between the clean shiny Elysium technology and the grungy Earthbound tech is a nice touch. Much as he used South African shanty towns in District 9, Blomkamp filmed much of the story in Mexican slums, substituting for Los Angeles. Whilst this gives the film a certain degree of realism (and the fact that most of the people are Hispanic is a nice touch given the way American demographics are moving) sadly little effort is made to actually make it look like LA has become this sprawling megacity, so we could be anywhere, we could just be in Mexico, which lessens the impact more than if we could recognise that this horrible place was once a modern Western metropolis.

Similarly Elysium looks gorgeous, a giant spinning wheel in space filled with lush green lawns, swimming pools and fantastic mansions, a literal gated community in the sky. But we see so little of what goes on there that we don’t really get a sense of it as a real place.

As I said earlier the film is both similar to, and vastly different from, District 9. Both were at least partly filmed in real life, poverty stricken locations to give added realism, both feature regular guys who undergo body modification and fight against injustice, in District 9 Copley’s character became part alien, whilst here Max has to have an exoskeleton bolted onto his body just so he can walk.

Both films deal with injustice as well, but that’s where the similarities end. District 9 had humour, District 9 was anarchic, sticking its middle finger up at polite society, District 9 also had shades of grey, or at least more shades of grey than Elysium, which is about as black and white as characters in a certain episode of Star Trek. District 9 was also well paced and the action nicely handled. By contrast the actions scenes in Elysium become a bit routine after a while, in fact at times it commits the cardinal sin for an action film, it gets a little dull.

And don’t get me started on the ramifications of the feel good ending. Remember, overpopulated Earth…

There’s the kernel of a nice idea here, a film about inequality, about people trafficking and about the First world shutting itself off from the Third World, about how there are people leaching off the poor on both sides of the equation, just as there are people trying to improve everyone’s lot on either side of the argument. Sadly Elysium jettisons any semblance of this in favour of sledge hammer politics and a frankly bland running/shooting/exploding storyline.

Elysium? Elysi-ho-hum more like…

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