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Elysium Review

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It's better up there...

by Casimir Harlow Sep 1, 2013 at 12:01 AM

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    Elysium Review
    Relentlessly tense, palpably gritty and innovatively action-packed, Neil Blomkamp's sophomore sci-fi actioner - after his highly-acclaimed debut, the equally dirty District 9 - confirms his position as a filmmaker to keep your eye on. Indeed, considering his now-evident trend for dystopian sci-fi action infused with Cronenbergian body-horror, riding atop a thinly-veiled socio-political commentary, it's a surprise nobody pipped him to helm the upcoming Robocop remake (which now looks woefully impotent under the restrictions of its recently-revealed PG-13 classification). Blomkamp, whilst never even coming close to Verhoevian levels of ultra-violence, still makes features which are unequivocally adult, both in content and, perhaps more importantly, in tone. His desperately reluctant heroes live in - and go through - absolute hell on their journey, and it's nice to find that this isn't the usual tween-demographic hell many features are neutered by, but instead a place where you could easily get your face blasted off by a grenade.

    It's 2154. The world is a mess. Overpopulated, impoverished, polluted, ruined. The richest of the rich don't have to fret though: they live on an off-world space station called Elysium. It's a place of lush green gardens, swimming pools and mansions. And the latest hi-tech health care: every home has a device which can basically repair anything wrong with your body, from wrinkles to cancer. You can live forever. They may as well have called it Mount Olympus because this is where you can live like a God.

    Every since he was a child, Max wanted to go to Elysium. As an orphan, he eventually took to a life of crime, largely dashing any hopes of making it to the man-made paradise; instead relegated to factory work, manufacturing the very robot sentries that police the oppressed population. But when tragedy strikes, his timetable to get off-world is suddenly shortened to a matter of days... hours, even. Now he'll do whatever it takes - beg, borrow, steal and even kill - to get off this godforsaken planet.

    After addressing issues of morality, humanity, xenophobia and social segregation in District 9 - itself inspired by the real-life events in Cape Town's District 6 during Apartheid in South Africa - writer/director Neil Blomkamp, having become an overnight sensation, doesn't hold back in his socio-political commentary for his sophomore vehicle, even if it has undoubtedly been tempered for the more mainstream projection of a £115 Million Sony-backed blockbuster.

    Whilst still hanging about in the slums, shooting the future-earth scenes with present-day real-life Mexico standing in for the across-the-border LA, Blomkamp expands on his previous Apartheid reflection with a pointed look at immigration and open-borders, and the ensuing Malthusian population growth problems; class struggles and the rich feeding off the poor; and, perhaps most topically, health care issues (most obviously in the US) whereupon medical treatment is largely a privilege of the wealthy. It examines what this kind of society (we're not that far away from it) does to us and the compound damage that can occur if the situation is allowed to spiral out of control, unchecked.

    Of course he wraps all this up in a bubble that is just flashy enough to grab the attention of Studio execs no doubt more concerned with emulating the likes of the visually opulent Oblivion than with any kind of social commentary held within. His futuristic art designs are what sold it - a giant halo-like orbiting space station (no doubt inspired by the project that never quite made it, his Halo adaptation) where all the decadent million-dollar houses from the gated suburbs of Beverly Hills and Orange County look to have been transplanted to generate those veritable Elysian Fields from which the title is taken - and certainly it's a striking visionary delight. Throw into that aggressive police robot sentries - they'll break your arm for being sarcastic - cool drop ships (again, very Halo-esque) and, of course, those distinctive exo-suits that adorn many of the posters, and you have a proposal demanding interest.

    When it comes to the finished product, however, Elysium is as much District 9 as it is Oblivion, revelling in the gritty, sweaty, seedy underbelly which is what Earth has become, and positing the off-world heavens as that dream-like afterlife that the stifling over-populace gaze up to the sky in awe of. Although there are some similarities between this year's two big original hitters, both thematically and visually, they are very different animals: Elysium is like Oblivion's rougher, dirtier, more wayward sibling. On Blomkamp's earth, human rights have gone right out of the window; the litigation culture of today is now a thing of the past - you get hurt at your workplace and the bosses are more interested in how quickly they can you replaced than what they can do to help you. A lot of parallels can be drawn with the totalitarian Mega-cities of Dredd, only here the crime seems far more justifiable and inevitable, given the callous button-pushing omnipotence of the off-world puppeteers.

    At the heart of Blomkamp's sociopolitical treatise is an observation not so much of the future, but of our very present; a study of the human condition and true sacrifice, weighed up against that desperate sense of innately selfish but wholly understandable self-preservation which, ultimately, comes instinctively to all of us. And in a world where unity seems like a marijuana-hazed hippy dream of a time long gone - I'm talking about now - and where the prime directive has been transformed into the pursuit of (personal) happiness (i.e. wealth), at the expense of anybody and everybody else round you, Blomkamp's examination of just how far you would go is perhaps more topical than you might first assume.

    Bringing the driving force to that self-preservation is Matt Damon's innately selfish Max, a poverty-hardened ex-con who doesn't want to spend any more time behind bars and who toils away relentlessly, hoping that one day his Elysian pipe dreams might come to fruition. Funnily enough Damon wasn't Blomkamp's first choice, or even his second (South African rapper, Ninja, curiously turned down the role before Eminem was picked-and-dropped, mainly because he, also curiously, was insistent that it be shot in Detroit), but he's a great fit.
    For starters, Damon's left-wing sensibilities are always worn proud and prominent on most all of his features - and Elysium's subtext was right up his street - and, secondly, he knows just how to give life to a reluctantly tough anti-hero, slow to action but ultimately determined in his cause; the kind of guy who just wants to be left alone to live his life, but is smacked upside the head so many times that he eventually goes postal. Damon worked out extensively for the part (not to mention shaved his head), but you'd be forgiven for - but for a brief early moment - barely registering this; after they go all Cronenberg on him he's like some twisted proto-Robocop, cold steel drilled and bolted into his body, the bloody plug wounds still seeping. It's a solid action role for him, sitting proudly amidst his generally excellent Bourne features and the more politically-inspired Green Zone.

    Oddly earning co-top billing, Jodie Foster has little more than a veteran actor's supporting part - the kind of thing that earns most actors of her ilk a "with Jodie Foster" end-of-title-credits billing, rather than being alongside Damon himself. I guess she was supposed to lend the feature some weight - and she does, along with affecting a rather inconsistent ADR-influenced accent - but her take-no-prisoners Defence Secretary struggles to be much more than a scheming caricature (but for in one fleeting moment). Similarly Alice Braga (Predators, I Am Legend) plays her childhood sweetheart character in a wholly predictable fashion, although such are the limitations of the role. William Fichtner (Heat, The Dark Knight) plays the same wealthy weasel that he almost physically resembles, but is a welcome addition, particularly in a dystopian future where weasels would clearly run the world.

    Easily the scene-stealing star of the show, however, is District 9's very own hero Sharlto Copley, here playing a brutal Black Ops Special Forces sleeper agent - also with his own exo-skeleton - who has been doing the Government's dirty business for so long that he positively enjoys it. Whether firing laser-guided mini-remote detonation limpet mines at a fleeing target, and cheering as they tear him apart; taking a face-full of shrapnel; rallying his team to raid a family home; wielding his ninja-sword; deploying his plasma shield (yes, another lay-over from Halo); or just getting down-and-dirty for a close-quarters knife fight, Copley fully embraces the Government-employed psychotic role, reportedly basing it on South Africa's own notoriously vicious Black Ops Special Forces operatives. And whilst it is one of the most unnecessary remakes EVER, if anybody is going to make Spike Lee's Oldboy worth watching, it's Copley.

    For all the praise levied towards Blomkamp's largely well-balanced visionary vs. social commentary plotting, matching impressive visuals with gritty texture and bloody impact, adding welcome weight to the dark but stylish piece - and for as much as I rate the cast's contribution to the mix - there's no doubt that there is one distinct area where the movie drops the ball: the score.

    First-time composer Ryan Amon's only experience was scoring movie trailers. Reportedly he was hired by email based purely on Blomkamp admiring some of his work on YouTube. From that perspective he does an impressive job. Unfortunately, rumours also have it that he did much of his work on the movie 'blind', in that he was writing the score without having the finished movie as a frame of reference. Whether because of this, or because of his lack of experience, the score is, unfortunately, a fractured, disjointed and distinctly hit-and-miss affair. Initially it manages to draw you into the piece and heighten the impact, but it’s not long before it becomes borderline invasive. The only outright mistake, however, is in the massive shifts in score from one scene to the next. It's as if they shot the movie, scored it, and then edited it, with pieces of music literally halting abruptly as the scenes jump around, and then resuming when we return to that thread. Amon certainly does an impressive job for an amateur, but it's a frankly amateurish job, for a professional.

    Blomkamp's intense fight sequences are also quite disjointed, almost borderline shaky-cam, but thankfully he delivers enough memorable touches - enough chem-gun-shoots-through-the-wall moments - to make up for it. And there's no denying the tension. Whether it reminds you of Ripley being chased around the Nostromo, ED-209 relentlessly hunting down Robocop; a psychotic, sadistic Dolph Lundgren toying with an underdog Van Damme in Universal Soldier; or Arnie's battle-damaged T2 desperately trying to hold his own against the near-indestructible T-1000, Blomkamp stirs up some warm memories with his exo-skeleton-clad skirmishes (and that's not to mention all the Total Recall nods - both classic and remake, the parallels with Aeon Flux, Escape From New York, and dozens of classic sci-fi features). And, despite the references, he feels like he’s got a distinctive style of his own.

    Hell, he even tries his hand at a futuristic 'speed-cam' form of shooting - when Max first puts his suit to use, the camera, shot shaky-style as if it were mounted on the shoulder of a person running just behind him, plays out at just-faster-than-normal speed to reflect the suit's performance enhancement. Unfortunately, he doesn't really return to the innovative spin, which is a shame as it was a nice touch. Yet it shows that he is refining his style, and reaffirms the fact that he is a capable action director.

    Of course it's his socio-political bent that distinguishes his films from the majority - his railing against all the anti-Medicare villains; all the one-percenters - that lend this engrossing, tense, and action-packed sci-fi thriller that added level of depth. That and the fact that his grimy, dirty films seldom pull their punches - there are no heroes here, no flesh is sacred, and no Hollywood audience-friendly sensibilities will be appeased. This is big boys’ rules now.

    Far from a flawless masterpiece, Elysium is still undoubtedly a must-see cinema effort; one of the best sci-fi films of the year - and 2013 has been a big year for sci-fi. Recommended.

    Verdict

    Relentlessly tense, palpably gritty and innovatively action-packed, Neil Blomkamp's sophomore sci-fi actioner - following his highly-acclaimed debut, the equally dirty District 9 - confirms his position as a filmmaker to keep your eye on.

    His latest is another dystopian thriller infused with Cronenbergian body-horror, riding atop a thinly-veiled socio-political commentary – unequivocally pitched at adults, both in content and, perhaps more importantly, in tone – and it's nice to find that it doesn’t rein ambivalent in the usual tween-demographic hell many features are self-neutered by, but instead loiters in the kind of place where you could easily get your face blasted off by a grenade.

    Blomkamp skilfully balances visionary future-scale with topical social commentary, matching impressive visuals with gritty texture and bloody impact, and adding welcome weight to the dark and stylish piece, whilst grounding it in a series of strong core performances. It’s also tense and relentlessly dark in its oppressive and oftentimes innovative action setpieces.

    Far from a flawless masterpiece, Elysium is still undoubtedly a must-see cinema effort; one of the best sci-fi films of the year - and 2013 has been a big year for sci-fi. Recommended.

    The Rundown


    8
    AVForumsSCORE
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    10

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