13 August 2013

First Impressions: Elysium

Years on down the line when we're all nestled in to watch The Avengers 8: M.O.D.O.K.'s Beach Party (2033), we'll look back to a summer twenty years earlier and wonder where all the original blockbusters had gone. Via Oblivion, After Earth, Pacific Rim, and Elysium, this is our death sentence to a life of bland comic book sequels forever.

And that's not entirely fair. Out of that lot, the only really bad film is After Earth, and all of the rest performed pretty decently. None, however, have really caught on the way original properties used to, and for now it's a decent measuring stick demonstrating that the next big thing in mainstream cinema isn't going to come from a writer's head - it will come from toys made in the 80s.

Elysium arrives from the mind of Neill Blomkamp, who wowed everybody in 2009 when District 9 dropped and hundreds of prawn exploitations later, is still a pretty radical film and a nice hit. It's easy to see Elysium as the natural extension of that film and in many ways it's his version of Pulp Fiction (1994) or Mallrats (1995) - a solid follow-up film to a surprisingly good first film that is still a little derivative of the first in theme and setting. At the heart of District 9 was this analogue to South African apartheid, and institutionalized racist political and social structure built on a baseline inequality and substantial fear of a foreign "other" - in this case, SUPER-foreign hordes of destitute aliens. This review is meant to open up a thoughtful discussion of Elysium, so obviously, SPOILERS from here on out, folks.
We've had more Robot fights this summer...

Elysium sticks with humans, but remains in the science fiction wheelhouse, transporting us to 2154 (the same year that AVABAR [2009] takes place in by the way - this could be the Earth from that film! No, probably not), where he haves live in a huge floating space station and the have-nots apparently all live in Los Angeles, which now looks like Mexico City. Which is actually where they filmed those scenes.

It's a jarring contrast for sure - the spacestation Elysium is a sprawling Stanford Torus (although most people's first reaction [including mine] would probably be more like "Cool! Halo!") filled with the richest people from Earth. It looks like the greatest vacation spot in history, with sprawling Romanesque mansions, swimming pools, and a continuous flow of luxury. It's also distinctly American, with a President (although he's Brown president played by Faran Tahir of Iron Man [2008] - naturally, things don't go well under his leadership) and even a Director of Homeland Security, played with a sinister edge by Jodie Foster. It's this evil Department of Homeland Security that causes most of the conflict in this film.

Back on Earth, LA is a shithole. Something always seems to be on fire, hospitals are overcrowded, and work is tough to come by. Similar to last year's Looper (2012), it's surprising and frightening how easily this future seems possible. Like its Pakistani President, there is a nice mixing of races here, though, which is always refreshing in a Sea of Blockbusters that tend to be male and white. Everybody speaks Spanish, including our hero, Matt Damon as Max Da Costa, who appears to be Latino or something, despite being Matt Damon.

At first this appears to be a role a little outside of Damon's usual bag, but the street-tough punk is really similar to a little Good Will Hunting (1997) action. Except that Da Costa isn't really a genius janitor. You could say that those nifty Bourne films helped Damon's action creds, but this is more R-rated badassery than Damon has ever done before. Apparently, this role was originally supposed to go to Eminem, so chew on that for a little bit. Damon does a fine job, gets a nice shirtless scene to show off the hard work he put in on his pecs and abs and plays gruff and scared in fine equal measure. Da Costa isn't a particularly interesting character to begin with, and honestly, isn't even really that heroic. This selfish protagonist is actually fairly inline with Sharlto Copley's Wikus van de Merwe from District 9 who is really just a huge asshole.

Speaking of Sharlto Copley, he returns here all jacked up and crazy as the rogue-ish agent Kruger, who basically kills his way through life under the shady employment of Jodie Foster. In the miserable tough life of the future, he's the one dude who seems to be enjoying himself - he's wild and animalistic, a perfect fit for the brutal life of 2154 Los Angeles. In a way he actually reminded me of Danny McBride in the last few moments of This is The End (2013) - totally in his element during the apocalypse and unsuitable for normal society.

While his character isn't totally developed, he doesn't need to be. Through and through he's the menacing badass he needs to be. More often than not it seems as if recent movies have jammed down our throats words describing how evil villains are instead of actually seeing them do evil things (one major example this summer was Star Trek Into Darkness [2013], where we're continually reminded that James Harrison is one bad dude, without ever really seeing it demonstrated). Elysium counters this by being virtually all plot. We're introduced to Kruger as he's blowing up illegal transport ships to Elysium, and every appearance after that we're seeing his evil ways on screen, instead of talking about it. It's a very astute and effective way to develop a character.

The film shoe-horns in a love interest (Alice Braga) and her cancer-ridden daughter (Emma Tremblay) for Matt Damon to deal with, which kind of sidetracks things a bit from the main story, which is really just Damon trying to save his own damn life at any cost. Because, you know, he's literally got nothing to lose. After a lethal dose of radiation (which was meant to be applied to Robots. Who knows what that radiation would do the Robots or why they needed it, but whatevs), he's got a 5-day countdown till his death. Since all his organs are failing he's outfitted with a robot exo-suit to give him increased badass abilities to complete one last job for underground hacker / arms dealer / Harriet Tubman Spider (Wagner Moura), who is kind of a skeezeball, but is ultimately a bit more noble than Max when concerned with helping out society.
When Elysium is in ashes...then you have my permission to die.

And then we can get into the core themes of this film, which really makes it the most liberal movie ever. The central political conflict of the film is that the poor people of earth keep trying to sneak into the rich land of Elysium, mostly for their free beds that instantly cure anyone of any illness. The Department of Homeland Security makes sure to blow up any intruding immigrants and keep their spectacular medical technology to themselves while hospitals overflow on earth and Matt Damon gets little in workman's comp from his injury. It's certainly a jab at anti-immigration and anti-health care laws, although by the end of the film, its ham-fisted handling of its own themes and over the top bludgeoning over the head with its message trumps its ideology. I half expected Matt Damon to die in a cross position.

This is tough to criticize because immigration reform is integral to global society, and the socialization of health care is a complex issue that is largely simplified in the world of Elysium through the insta-heal med beds. Of course, in the real world, health care could be much more affordable and available than it is now, so there is some argument to be had both ways. At any rate, while District 9 was a thorough meditation on race relations through a Kafka-esque cinematic experiment, Elysium is clumsier in managing and expressing its political constructs.

Still, there are tons of cool stuff in this movie. Like District 9 the technology remains pretty realistic but also really cool. From the Robo-Suit duel to the exploding machine gun bullets and brain-downloads, the technology is sweet. One of the more badass moments, though, happens after Sharlto Kopley literally gets his face blown off from a grenade. It seemed like a very anti-climactic ending for the main villain, then it turns out that he survived, because he's just all kinds of awesome. He gets his face reconstructed (looking less scared, dirty, and younger in a very cool touch), and gets back into the action. It's a great gross-out moment.

This is also a fine film for anyone who hates Matt Damon and wants to watch him get brutalized for two hours. Seriously, he gets his arm broken by Robot Policeman in the first five minutes. From there he's poisoned, stabbed, has his head drilled into, shot at, smacked around, and eventually dies. It's total cray cray.

All in all this is a solid film with decent plotting, nice action, and a strong adherence to a "show, don't tell" philosophy that pays off. Its characters are a little whatever, and although it hits on important themes, it's all a little too obvious to be really insightful. I'm still looking forward to Blomkamp's next outing, but for now, Elysium is a fine late Summer Entry.

What did you think of the Bald Matt Damon flick?

1 comment:

  1. I'm shocked by the lack of K_UGER jokes in these impressions


Related Posts with Thumbnails