Sunday, September 15, 2013

Elysium Review

Neill Blompkamp’s directorial debut, District 9, was just so astounding that my expectations for his follow-up, Elysium, were through the roof.  District 9 was just such a special little film; the visual effects were some of the best ever seen, earning the film an Academy Award nomination, the characters were unique and felt real, and the way the narrative unfolded, transitioning from pseudo-found-footage to a more traditionally shot film was superb.  Unfortunately, while still a great time at the theater, Elysium just isn't up to par with this previous effort.

Set in 2154, Elysium introduces us to an Earth that has been ravaged to the point where it’s a veritable wasteland.  The rich and powerful members of society built a massive habitat ring in orbit, known as Elysium (which also happens to look almost identically to a Halo ring from that videogame series..), where everyone like, hangs out by pools and is just being rich and awesome.  We get a small glimpse into an ordinary citizens’ life through Max DaCosta (Matt Damon).  He lives in a massive shanty-town version of Los Angeles (think of the shanty town in District 9 but just on top of skyscrapers), working in a massive factory that produces robots that are used as the police force (and other purposes).  One day he’s dosed with a lethal burst of radiation and given just a few days to live.  He makes it his final goal in life to make it up to Elysium to fix himself, in one of the magical medical beds that can cure any disease.

Confused yet?  There is, of course, more to the plot but that’s the general idea.  There’s a lot going on in Elysium after you add in all of the periphery characters that make up the ensemble cast.  Jodie Foster’s Delacourt (seriously, what is up with her accent?!?) is the Secretary of Defense of Elysium, and of course she has her own agenda with the place.  Sharlto Copley plays one of the most sinister, down-and-out evil villains I've ever seen, Kruger.  He’s Delacourt’s on-call assassin/hit-man/ex-military-hired-thug that is certifiably insane.  There is absolutely no redemptive qualities to his character whatsoever.  You won’t sympathize with him for even a second.  And I loved it.  He is just so gloriously evil (and has some insane tech/weaponry) that Copley revels in the role and is clearly having a blast.

Damon’s Max is incredibly sympathetic and somewhat relatable; he’s just trying to make his way through this awful world after leading a life of crime.  Blompkamp tries to give us a window into his childhood through some kinda-bad flashbacks to his time in an orphanage.  It’s here where he learns about Elysium and vows to take himself and his friend, Frey (Alice Braga), up there someday.  It’s some pretty heavy-handed set-up for events that follow.

One thing that Elysium lacks over its predecessor is any sense of subtlety.  Granted, District 9 was very much an obvious analogy for apartheid in South Africa, and to a degree Elysium is as well, but it isn't hidden within an alien story line.  Here, the rich are literally above the poor and have the most awesome lifestyle ever.  There isn't much beyond that. 

As I previously mentioned, up on Elysium the rich have access to medical beds that will cure literally any ailment or disease a human can have.  We aren't told exactly why the rich won’t let poor people use their med-bays.  If you have this amazing technology, is there no way to develop other tech to help revitalize the Earth?  What exactly do people do on Elysium every day?  Do they have jobs?  Do they earn an income?  If over-population caused the destruction of the planet, wouldn't magical med-bays that cure anything do the same thing on Elysium?

As I just pointed out, the world-building Blompkamp does is good but not great.  This is just the most basic of story lines; poor good guy has to throw off the shackles of social oppression to fight against the bad rich guys.  By the end, the story pretty much just becomes Robin Hood.  But on a space station.

It may sound like I didn't really like Elysium, when in fact I did.  It may lack the subtlety or originality of District 9, but there is still quite a bit to enjoy about the film.  I do like Matt Damon quite a bit and enjoyed seeing him in this action-y role.  As I said before, Max is incredibly sympathetic and relatable.  Again, Kruger is just an awesomely-evil villain to his core.  As expected, the future tech on display is pretty amazing and somewhat grounded in our reality.  At one point, Max uses a modified AK-47 (we’re still using them 200+ years after they were created?) that has air-burst bullets with target-lock.  The effects (both visually and story-wise) are devastating and glorious.  There’s also a “chem-rail” rifle that can apparently shoot right through like, incredibly thick metal walls.  Kruger uses an energy shield several times (again, incredibly reminiscent of those in Halo) that is just awesome to view.

I suppose my biggest complaint with the film, if you look past the bland story and one-note characters, is the action.  Or more specifically, how the action was filmed.  District 9 has some face-melting action scenes and we could see exactly what was happening.  For some reason, the action sequences in Elysium are shot with some pretty heavy-handed shaky-cam (think Paul Greengrass on steroids).  I mean, I could tell what was happening but the visual effects are just so damn amazing that their beauty is hidden within this insane shakiness.  The final (this isn't a spoiler, folks.  There’s always one of these) showdown between Max and Kruger would've been pretty damn incredible had Blompkamp just locked down his camera for more than two quick shots.  I mean, there’s a gorgeous shot of Kruger jumping like, twenty feet in the air, in slow motion.  Then the camera goes right back to Parkinson’s mode.  It’s just such a shame.

While Elysium may not be the best or even my favorite sci-fi film this year (that honor goes to Oblivion), it’s still a very, very fun time at the theater and is still better than most run-of-the-mill summer action films.  While it doesn't quite live up to the heights achieved by District 9, I am still very much in Blompkamp’s corner and will continue to wish for great things from him.  Can Microsoft please just let him go back to Halo? (assuming, of course, that he’d still want to...which I don’t think he does)

Elysium is a fun, entertaining action blockbuster that doesn't quite live up to its predecessor.

The Bearded Bullet.

No comments:

Post a Comment