Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Elysium

Elysium is a new sci-fi action film written and directed by Neill Blomkamp.

It's pretty much impossible to discuss this film without comparing it to Blomkamp's previous film, 2009's District 9. Both films have a similar look and gritty feel, and both feature similar technology. Both attempt to use sci-fi to focus on a contemporary topic, ala Star Trek's more heavy handed "message" episodes. 

Of the two I think District 9 is slightly better. It had a singular point to make, using aliens to broach the subject of racism and apartheid. Elysium tries to juggle several messages (the right to medical care, immigration and the class divide) but this split focus just muddies the waters.

Elysium feels like it desperately wants to be a thinking man's sci-fi epic, but it's a bit too heavy-handed and simplistic. Blomkamp brings up important questions, but either doesn't have the patience or the skill to provide any answers. The first two thirds of the film are somewhat thought provoking, but the last act devolves into your standard "unstoppable superhuman hunts down the hero" thriller. I suppose we should thank the movie gods that at the very least the Elysium station doesn't blow up real good at the end.

It also suffers from an oversimplified "rich people bad, poor people good" mentality. Every resident of Elysium is written as a greedy, corrupt cartoonish asshole of a villain. Surely there had to be one or two sympathetic people living there?

Blomkamp needs to be careful or he's going to beome pigeonholed as the guy who writes heavy handed sci-fi message films. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose. Making the same movie over and over hasn't exactly hurt Michael Bay's bank account.

Incredibly, Blomkamp originally wanted rapper and actor Eminem to star in the film (!). Mr. Eminem said he'd agree only if the film was shot in his beloved Detroit. Blomkamp had already planned to shoot the bulk of the movie in Mexico and passed, hiring Matt Damon instead. I think that was a wise choice, although come to think of it, Detroit could probably have filled in for the dying Earth.

Futuristic Spoilers Ahead!

The Plot:
It's the year 2154 and the human race is divided into two blatantly distinct classes. The poor are forced to scratch out an existence on the overpopulated, disease-ridden Earth, while the rich live lives of luxury and perfect health on a deluxe orbiting space station called Elysium.

Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) lives and works on Earth, saving every penny in the futile hope of someday buying a ticket to the station. Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is the head of security of Elysium, who does whatever it takes to keep the orbiting paradise free of immigrants and other undesirables.

Max receives a fatal dose of radiation during a work place accident, forcing his boss to fire him and change their "Days Without An Accident" sign back to 0. With Earth's substandard medical care he'll die in five days unless he can somehow make it to Elysium and heal himself in one of their magical Med-Pods.

Meanwhile, in a completely superfluous subplot, Delacourt is scheming with an unscrupulous CEO and a mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to stage a coup and become President Of The Earth, or maybe just of the U.S.

Pros:
• Kudos to the producers for setting the film in 2154. It's long been a pet peeve of mine when a sci-fi film features super-advanced technology or a wildly different society but is set only twenty or thirty years from now. It's nice to finally see a futuristic film that actually takes place in, you know, the future.

• The film features some excellent special effects that look absolutely real. The droids, the spaceships, the Earth and Elysium environments-- all looked totally believable to me.

• In a similar vein, all the technology in the movie seemed believable and possible as well. OK, maybe not the magic Med-Pods that can diagnose and somehow repair any disease or injury in thirty seconds, but everything else seemed doable.

• All the residents of Elysium have little words or symbols burned into the skin on their faces, like keloidal scars but more subtle. I assume this is meant to be some kind of futuristic fad or fashion going around the station, which was a nice little touch.

Cons:
• Even though I praised Blomkamp for setting his futuristic film in the future, I don't think we could build something like Elysium by 2154 even if we started today.

I mean look at it-- it's a huge spinning ring whose inner living surface is landscaped with soil and water. How many million shuttle trips did it take to bring all those materials up from the Earth's surface?

• The acting is all over the place in this film. Matt Damon does a decent job as Max, giving him an understated dignity. Jodie Foster, however, seems to be in a completely different movie. She's about as subtle as the average comic book villain and speaks her lines in a weird "maybe British, might be French" accent. If she had a mustache she'd no doubt be twirling it while telling her crew to shoot down shuttles full of immigrants.

Sharlto Copley goes way, way over the top as the cartoonish mercenary Kruger. His performance makes William Shatner looks subtle and nuanced. He struts, snarls and leers as he not only chews the scenery, but the studio walls behind it as well.

He also speaks all his lines in his native South African accent, which at times makes it nearly impossible to understand what he's saying. Ehh, no need for a second take, Blomkamp. I doubt Kruger was saying anything the audience needed to know about anyway.

• Why the hell doesn't Elysium have its own defense system? At one point three unauthorized shuttles, chock full of immigrants, blast off toward Elysium. Secretary Delacourt tells them to turn around and when they refuse, she gives the order to shoot 'em out of the sky. Instead of a gun emplacement on Elysium opening fire, Delacourt instead has to rely on a batsh*t insane undercover agent named Kruger, who's located on Earth. 

Kruger gets her signal, pulls out a big-ass gun (lucky he just happened to be near his weapons stash!) and fires off several ground to space missiles which take out the offending shuttles. 

This is totally unbelievable. There's no way anyone would ever build a quadrillion dollar space station that couldn't protect itself. What about meteors? Do they have to rely on Kruger to shoot those down too before they crash into the station?  And what if he'd been on the other side of the planet when he got the call, and couldn't see the station? Or is Elysium in synchronous orbit with Earth?

• After Max is irradiated he becomes weakened, his former partner in crime Spider has him fitted with an exoskeleton to give him strength and keep him on his feet. In a harrowing sequence, the exoskeleton is screwed right onto his body. Can you really screw a thick, three inch long bolt right into a person's shoulder blades? Wouldn't the bones split or shatter like cheap particle board?

Also, Max suffers from what's known as "movie radiation sickness," in which you're given five days to live but instead of progressively getting worse and worse until you die, you function more or less normally until your final minutes.

• I'm growing very, very weary of Shaky Cam™ fight scenes. Such scenes have run rampant in nearly all of this summer's blockbusters, but Elysium takes them to a whole new level. During the fight scenes I had no idea who the hell I was watching or what the hell they were doing to one another. I shouldn't have to wait until a fight's over to see who won.

I have to assume directors do this to hide their sub-par fight choreography.

• Not necessarily a con, but an observation. Every scene set on Elysium shows part of the station's ring or the support pylons stretching up into the sky. It's an awesome visual, but isn't it funny how every camera angle is pointed along the north/south axis so you can see the ring? I guess no one on Elysium ever looks east to west. 

Kind of like how every movie apartment in Paris has a view of the Eiffel Tower.

• Do the people on Elysium have jobs? Every time we see them they're lounging in the sun or splashing around in pools. I suppose they're all so rich they don't need to ever work.

• When Kruger is searching for Max, he releases a flock of automated drones to hunt for him. The drones look exactly like flying Roombas. In fact they look so much like them it was distracting. I kept thinking, "Hey look, Matt Damon's being chased by a flying Roomba. I need to find out how much those cost and maybe get one for my carpet." Surely there was some other design they could have gone with.

• At least twice in the film immigrants from Earth make it to Elysium for the express purpose of using one of their miraculous Med-Pods. Both times they approach mansions on the surface and have to break a window in order to get inside. If Elysium is such a paradise, why do people keep their doors locked? Habit?

• Speaking of Med-Pods, for some reason they only work on official citizens of Elysium who have their I.D. burned into their skin. But why? We've already seen that it's virtually impossible for someone from Earth to get there in the first place. Why add that extra level of security, other than as a big F-U to any unauthorized person who tries to use them?

• During a scuffle, Kruger gets his face blown off by a grenade. Ouch! Fortunately for him this grievous injury doesn't kill him and somehow leaves his brain intact. His henchmen stick him in a Med-Pod and in just a few seconds it miraculously reconstructs his face, including his teeth and eyes. Even more miraculously, the nanites or whatever the hell is doing the reconstructing recreate his beard as well. Every single hair of it! Now that's attention to detail!

• After finally reaching Elysium, Max and Spider reprogram the main computer so that all the people of Earth are now official citizens of the station. Two things here:

First, if the system can be so easily changed to accept anyone, I see no reason why it can't just as easily be changed back to the way it was. Does Spider really think the government is going to throw up its hands and just let this stand?

Second, I imagine that Elysium is a closed system and can only feed and support a certain amount of people. If the billions of people on Earth all try to go up there they're going to overload the system. There's no way it could support everyone. If they all try to live there then in a very short time it's gonna end up looking just like Earth.

• At the end of the film several shuttles containing Med-Pods land on Earth, providing much needed medical care to the inhabitants. 

Couldn't the people of Elysium have set up a few free clinics like this all along? Why hoard all the medical care for themselves, other than because the script says so? I suppose it's possible they cost too much to provide them free to all who need them, but it seems like some sort of arrangement could have been worked out.

Also each of the three shuttles that land appear to hold twenty or so Med-Pods, for a total of sixty. Sixty Med-Pods to provide medical care to a city of millions, possibly even billions. Seems a bit paltry to me. How long do you think it would take before the people at the back of the line start a riot and turn the shuttles over? Or before some ambitious gang leader seizes the Med-Pods for himself and starts charging an arm and a leg (literally!) to use 'em? Hopefully Elysium sent down more than the few we saw.

A decent sci-fi film that desperately wants to be about something, but doesn't seem to know how to go about it. I give it a B.

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