MOVIE REVIEW: Elysium
Back in April when I reviewed Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion, it signified the first legitimate contender in what was shaping up to be a banner year of original science-fiction offerings from Hollywood. I said in that review that, on paper, 2013 had a chance to rival the great year of 1982 (E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, and The Thing) for impacting the genre going forward, not just with box office receipts, but with meaningful film experiences. I found Oblivion to be a great starting step, but, since then, the results have been mixed. Just over halfway through the year, I don't think 2013 is going to catch 1982.
Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, and World War Z all performed admirably as sci-fi hits, but After Earth and (to a lesser degree) Pacific Rim were summer flops that joined the spring also-rans of Upside Down and The Host. Before the fall and holiday movie seasons arrive with promising films like Gravity, Thor: The Dark World, Ender's Game, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the next big checkpoint for this year's slate of science fiction is Neil Blomkamp's Elysium.
Directed and co-written by District 9's breakout filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, Elysium definitely joins the aforementioned list of admirable efforts. Dynamically designed and well paced, the film offers very good, albeit predictable, entertainment for this slow final month of the summer movie season. Compared to everything else out there, Elysium is a step up, but isn't going to end 2013 as the best science fiction effort of the year.
Oscar winner Matt Damon headlines as Max Da Costa, a locally renowned former car thief working on a factory floor as part of his parole in the year 2154. He lives in a rundown and bleak future version of Los Angeles governed by strict regulation and cruel automated police robots. The city, strikingly portrayed by the modern-day slums of Mexico City, is an urban wasteland of squalor and crime. In 2154, the extremely rich and privileged have vacated the planet to an enormous and decadent space station orbiting the Earth called Elysium. In their floating paradise, the citizens of Elysium reap the benefits of advanced medical technology, secure living, and everything money can buy while the overpopulated planet below them, and its people, slowly rot away.
In an accident at work, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and has just five days to live. The instantaneous cure would be a Med-Pod on Elysium, a magic wand chamber/MacGuffin that can remove injury and disease as fast as a Xerox machine makes copies and without the hang-ups of jammed paper, ink, or toner. The trouble is any non-citizen transport that approaches the station is shot down, orchestrated by its Secretary of Defense, the ice cold Jessica Delacourt (Academy Award winner Jodie Foster), and her asset operatives on the ground lead by the brutal and maniacal Kruger (District 9 star Sharlto Copley).
Sick, dying, and desperate, Max turns to his former crime boss Spider (Brazilian newcomer Wagner Moura) and calls in a favor. In exchange for apprehending the valuable brain data of a targeted billionaire CEO (professional movie jerk William Fichtner), Spider has a scheme to bring down Elysium's defenses and citizen registry. To pull off the job, Spider retrofits Max with a dangerous exoskeleton implants that increases his strength and stamina, the same kind of tech used by the hunter/assassin Kruger. Along the way, Max reconnects with a childhood friend (I Am Legend's Alice Braga) and agrees to bring her late stage leukemia-stricken daughter with him to Elysium.
Elysium does very little to hide its allegorical and symbolic agenda. Like all good science fiction films, the problems and conflicts they show are almost always a reflection on today's society. I covered a bit of this notion in myOblivion review four months back stating that science fiction films ask big questions and take the audience to forgivably implausible places. The more fantastical the better. In the same way that all war films are essentially anti-war films, the best science fiction films superimpose today on tomorrow exposing our present errors and mistakes with the hope that they don't carry on into the future. Elysium fits that description. As you will read later in the lessons, the film wields a heavy hand with its direct shots at today's class warfare, immigration, and heath care issues.
I won't argue with the film's technical merits one bit. Neill Blomkamp dazzled us four years ago with District 9's impressive effects and visual palette shot for just $30 million. With a budget triple that this time around, Blomkamp squeezed all effort out of every penny. The two halves of the film's production design style, the L.A. slums of dust and decay and the pristine polished finery of Elysium are incredibly detailed and jaw-dropping. His visual effects are seamless, the makeup is unique, and the camerawork dances across the big screen. No wonder why everyone and their brother wants Blomkamp to say yes to the Halo video game adaptation rumors.
After the film's technical merit, the pieces start to weaken in Elysium. Matt Damon is always likable and dependable as a leading man, but only small peeks of usual charisma shine through. Along the same lines, Jodie Foster is given very little to do, despite second billing, other than gnaw through a few orders and scowl. The only guy having a blast and raising this movie's pulse is Sharlto Copley as Kruger. He's over-the-top in every way and it's a joy to watch. Sure, it's too much when displayed next to everyone else, but it beats something flatter from someone less interesting.
The worst part is every single one of their character arcs are highly predictable. Call me picky, but I needed more twists from the guy who turned the world on its head with District 9. I needed more meaning and depth than a few slaps at heath care and immigration. With issues and comparisons that potentially poignant, I needed more thought-provoking elements that those that were given. While Elysium is solid summer entertainment, it feels like a missed opportunity to be bolder and more important.
LESSON #1: SCIENCE FICTION AS A VESSEL OF PROVIDING FREE UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE-- We witness medical advancements every single day in our rapidly evolving society. Diseases and ailments are getting treated and cured all day by the cutting edge of medical and scientific research. In Elysium's future, that cutting edge cures everything in seconds. However, we all better notice that profit gets in the way. There is a pecking order of price. These saving advancements have costs and people make money off of the sick every day. The affluent, wealthy, and connected are always the first to get these medical benefits because they can afford them, while the rest of the lower classes can't afford the simple things that could save and extend their lives. This is classic liberal Hollywood thinly veiling their stance on today's issues. Obamacare fans, anyone?
LESSON #2: SCIENCE FICTION AS A MOUTHPIECE FOR CLASS WARFARE-- Elysium isn't the first science fiction film to show elitists and the wealthy separating themselves from the decrepit and poor, but it sure gave them the most lavish setting. The whole vision of Elysium elicits hope and a better life to the less fortunate (and less informed) on Earth that see it sparkling above them in the sky. Symbolically, the citizens on the station are right where they want to be, wined and dined, ignoring, and looking down on them in grand fashion. The gap between poor and rich couldn't be made more metaphorically wider.
LESSON #3: SCIENCE FICTION AS A LANDSCAPE FOR DEBATING IMMIGRATION-- To go along with that class discrimination of Lesson #1, Elysium raises plenty of debating eyebrows in comparing the restricted immigration and citizenship of the 22nd century to our own. It's no accident that Latinos play most of the poor Earth citizens, refugees, and criminals while the Elysium citizens are designer clothes-wearing white folks. With a citizenship and migration boundary now extending off into space, the "you people can't come here/don't belong here" vibe is loud, clear, and revolting. While all of this is done on purpose, I honestly can't wait to see some pundit on Fox News attempt to destroy and call out this movie.