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It’s not exactly a subtle film.

Some are calling Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow up to District 9, the disappointment of the summer. I guess these people never saw Man of Steel. What connects Man of Steel and Elysium can be summed up in one word: hype. It can also be dispelled almost as easily: by letting go of unfair expectations. Man of Steel felt lesser for the epic, nuanced marketing that perfectly sold a movie it was for only the first half. Elyisum is hyped for what Blomkamp accomplished with District 9 and while Elysium is actually a lesser film, it’s not some crushing failure or massive letdown. It’s a cyberpunk fairy tale with a lot of great moves, but a few that don’t quite work. Both of these are good films overly hampered for disappointing people by not living up to some standard. Acknowledging that is an important first step in providing an honest evaluation of any movie that finds itself in this trap, and there are a lot of them these days.

If I can indulge some comparison with District 9 (it does invite this, and I think people will be thinking in these terms anyway as they watch), I’d say that the one thing Blomkamp certifiably surpasses himself with is the world-building and design. There is some repetition of theme with the guns and vehicles, but on the whole he’s managed to make Elysium feel like a real future, if an undesirable one. I will get more into this later, but it’s sort of important to mention it off the bat because if you’re coming into this looking for the same level of inventive action and quirky characterization, and astute allegory… you’re not going to get it. The action isn’t as good, nor is there very much of it, and the characterizations are blander on the whole, more akin to an 80’s movie than the more nuanced trend of contemporary “smart” action flicks. The allegory is clever and functional, but caught between Blomkamp’s commitment to gritty realism and a sort of fairy tale logic that sometimes undermines itself by being too clever (again, more on this later).

Having said all that, Elysium does work. If not always as well as I’d like. Especially if you let go of the urge to receive it under the shadow of District 9, which is admittedly difficult since it shares so much DNA. It’s a very different movie, though. Even if it doesn’t seem so on a superficial level, underneath the artifice that Blomkamp is so god damn good at, there’s the beating heart of a far more conventional action movie with slightly broader, and perhaps more ambitious, sociopolitical commentary mixed in. It compares far closer to Andrew Niccol’s In Time than it does to District 9, which all the good and bad that entails.

Elysium may feel like a bit of a letdown after the lightning-in-bottle magic of District 9, but it would be right at home alongside movies like Robocop or Total Recall. When you stop and think about it, so would District 9. Socially conscious science fiction has puttered along since its heyday and every now and then there’s one that knocks the roof off which makes you think there’s about to be a bunch more. That the subgenre will enjoy a resurgence. Elysium, unlike District 9, is not the movie that reinvigorates a genre, but it is the kind of movie that happens when a genre is well into that process. With the likes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, In Time, and even The Hunger Games in recent memory, science fiction stories that want to make direct commentary on social issues that face us now are beginning to come along more often and with a higher overall level of quality. Not all of them are Verhoevian, true, but they don’t all have to be.elysium

L.A. stands for all of Shithole Earth and, like Elysium itself, is practically a character in the movie.

The premise of the film is juicily topical. 150 years in the future, the disparity between the very poor and very rich has only intensified as pollution, overpopulation, and wealth gaps complicate the neo-liberal narrative. To protect their comfortable way of life, the rich basically create Spaceship Suburbia where they enjoy the benefits of a technological civilization that feels quite believably a century and a half in our future (it’s actually more conservative than I would bet on, even). Meanwhile, Earth is a dusty and toxic place where people have access to technology that mostly feels like it’s junk and refurbs from only about twenty years in our future.

Appropriately, this comments directly on the technological gap that many argue is an unavoidable consequence of rapidly developing, beneficial technology. Rather than being all tech-negative about it, the film simply acknowledges that technology is technology and some people are assholes about it. Bravo, says I. I think there are plenty of people, closet Luddites and the like, who’d prefer a movie where all the biotech implants and advanced medical tech (a major plot point) was simply smashed by the end, to equalize everything for everybody so we can start out again as primitives. Fuck that, says I.

Another interesting bit of world-building will hopefully exemplify why Blomkamp is so worth praising. Not only are half the characters in this film (more than that, I think) people of color or mixed race, there’s a sense of doubling down on the topical urgency of Hispanic influence on Western American population, culture, and language whilst also providing a believable future where that influence has become functionally dominant. Most people understand that immigration from Mexico has already vastly changed California and other states, but Blomkamp imagines what the extent of this could be in 150 years especially if everything else keeps going to shit. The result is that even the white lead, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is descended from and a product of Hispanic immigration and culture. The immigration Americans currently experience is replanted into the science fiction scenario Blomkamp has conjured for Elysium and it’s no accident at all that Mexican-Americans are the heroes of the film.

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Blomkamp doesn’t flinch away from the seedier parts of poverty: the crime, substance abuse, and desperation are a huge part of the picture.

After the text and establishing shots that introduce us to Elysium, we are immediately faced with one of the things that really just doesn’t work in the movie. We see Max as a kid, looking up at Elysium and wanting to go there, and then becoming a bit of a troublemaker whilst fostering a child’s romance with Frey (who grows up to be Alice Braga, surprising me again by not being awful). This is almost fine and well. It nicely informs the way Max acts later in the movie, going against his own self-interest and survivor’s mentality, but it’s also couched with an annoyingly stupid bit with a nun. The nun explains that he’s special and meant to do a great thing. What? Do we really need this shit? No, we don’t. It also slaps you in the face with Elysium‘s simplistic use of the Hero’s Journey (District 9 does it far better). Instead of letting us see that Max is destined to be a hero, the movie out and tells us.

I think this is because Max is a reformed criminal by the time we meet him again in adulthood. Maybe it was thought that audiences would be more sympathetic to him if there were a scene saying “don’t worry, this guy is the chosen one”. It’s not like he really is some kind of chosen one, but the movie comes as close to saying it as it can without introducing mystical elements that usually accompany that sort of shit. Now, I could have stomached this one lapse in judgment if it weren’t repeated again later. Recalling these scenes in the ending weakens it terribly, making it feel saccharine and self-important rather than triumphant, and it is perhaps the weakness of the ending that most mars this otherwise excellent film.

Anyway. As an adult, Max has tried to go straight and even has a job at a company called Armadyne. They not only build robots (human labor is cheaper than robot labor, a clever idea) but also designed the software package that runs Elysium. Their CEO is Carlyle (William Fichtner), the embodiment of the inhuman, sociopathic “job creator”. He couldn’t give less of a shit about people like Max, whose air he doesn’t even like breathing, and is utterly reptilian when poor Max is forced by his boss (who threatens his job, and he’s an ex-con trying to go legit) to enter a very dangerous chamber where they irradiate droids. In doing this, Max gets a lethal dose of radiation and will be dead in five days unless he can find a way to get to Elysium and access one of their medical pods. This also throws a wrench in his attempts to reconnect with Frey, who has returned to the neighborhood as a beleaguered nurse with a dying daughter. Once, Max had promised to take her to Elysium but now he’s just worried about saving his own ass. Of course, fate (or whatever) has other ideas.

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And then Hillary Clinton showed up!

Max isn’t the only one who longs for Elysium. A hacker and old associate of his, Spider (Wagner Moura) runs some kind of coyote operation. Earlier, we see one of his attempts to get would-be immigrants to Elysium go horribly wrong thanks to Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her harsh intolerance for immigration. Delacourt is a weird character that the movie eventually kind of dumps, and Foster’s performance is full of one-note menace and a bizarre, distracting inconsistent accent choice (French? Posh American? British? you tell me). It’s sort of set up that Delacourt protects all of Elysium with the ferocity of a mother lion because she herself has kids. That’s as much character development as she gets. The government of Elysium are the kind of inhumanly humane people who don’t just kill unwanted Earthlings, but do round them up with their robot security force and put them in cages until they can be mass-deported back to Earth without the miraculous medical technology the Elysians enjoy freely. Their president, Patel (Faran Tahir) doesn’t like Delacourt’s methods at all (she blows coyote ships out of the sky) nor does he like her reliance on a deactivated Earthside agent named Kruger (Sharlto Copley, who steals the movie). With Kruger on the ground, Elysium’s apparent lack of a missile defense system doesn’t matter: he can simply fire ground-to-space missiles at motherfuckers and does so with relish.

Because Delacourt holds Patel and his associates in contempt, she wants to stage a coup. Her coup is the background plot of the film, really, and intermixes with Max’s adventures in a mostly tight fashion. Armadyne is struggling so she exchanges guaranteed business contracts with Carlyle in exchange for his help rebooting Torus, the aforementioned software that runs Elysium. She also enlists Kruger’s help which he’s into simply because it means he’ll be allowed to keep going around and fucking shit up.

Alice Braga;Sharlto Copley

Kruger is the kind of villain that people remember, that elevates the proceedings. Though he plays a similar role (overzealous shooter with a vendetta against the hero) as the bald guy from District 9, he injects the character with an anarchic whimsy that feels reminiscent (in good ways) of Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker. Sometimes it feels like Copley is in a slightly different movie than everyone else, a movie more in line with what people probably expected from Blomkamp’s sophomore effort. Between barbequing with his futuristic katana to “come meet the boys!” and a little Afrikaaner lullaby thrown in for kicks, Kruger is a villain that sticks to the movie far better than does its hero.

Though Matt Damon does his best, Max kind of gets lost in his own movie. The character, as written, is reliant on cheesy flashbacks to generate motivation. We understand that Max is obsessed with survival, that simply not dying is motivation enough (until he fittingly dies for others). I do like the scrappy survivor thing. I like what characterization is generated by Max’s constantly being the underdog. I like the charm and humor he gets to show in one or two scenes. Somehow, though, it doesn’t stick enough. I think it feeds back into a structural problem with Elysium. This is a very momentum-heavy movie. Once it really gets going, there are almost no respites. The respite is an important functional element of an action movie. When used correctly, a bit of breath between chases, fights, and danger provides a chance to build character, evolve motive, and give the audience reasons to care about the people and the plot. Though Elysium is far from being shallow in this regard, it does feel imbalanced and this is detrimental not only to Max, but to supporting characters like Frey and Spider who feel like they should have had one or two more moments to really connect to the audience.

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The exosuit never really gets to have the punch it should, no pun intended.

Spider offers Max a deal to get him to Elysium. Max will have to brainjack a rich fuck and get access to all his bank info and accounts so that Spider can rob him blind. Max, who was semi-conscious whilst Carlyle was talking about him like he was a louse, selects the obvious target. This unwittingly puts him in possession of Carlyle’s codes to reboot Torus and complete Delacourt’s coup. It also puts him in Kruger’s gunsights and further complicates an already desperate life.

Although I give the movie some shit for undercooking Max as a character, I have to hand it to Blomkamp for settling on one of the very best ways to engender audience engagement in an action hero. Max is always physically fucked up, not only starting off with a broken arm but suffering continuous abuse from the radiation all the way to getting stabbed and beat up. Blomkamp did the same thing with District 9 in a less direct (and more clever) manner, but it fits in with this movie perfectly. Having Max notbe turned into an invulnerable juggernaut by the exosuit is a nice touch, retaining the physical vulnerability that increases the stakes (and thus viewers’ tension) for the character. Being pissed on by the world is part of what makes Max tick, and it is perhaps in his determination and resilience to it that we find the character the movie sometimes forgets to service. Max is the quintessential tough guy with a good heart, really.

It’s sort of odd that Matt Damon, poster boy of the cerebral action subgenre most clearly found in the Bourne films, is playing a role that could easily be something Schwarzenegger did in the late 80’s. In fact, another solid touchstone for Elysium is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. In fact, Elysium makes me think that Blomkamp is less this generation’s James Cameron and more this generation’s Verhoeven.

Matt Damon;Sharlto Copley

Max also has the older, more busted version of everything.

Since I can’t seem to get off the topic, there is a thing about Max that somewhat balances whatever weakness there is in his characterization. That is, he functions a lot better as an element of the broad allegory. As an ex-con trying to do a job and live a life, he is very representative of both the American prison system and its perpetuating effect on poverty, crime, and desperation. His experiences are meant to evoke how difficult it is to reintegrate, even when one is well-intended. As a result, he’s kind of the perfect figure to messianically rebalance the world. Being disenfranchised and rebelling against the controls placed upon him seem to be his only options. As a youth, he was a criminal because it was the only way to acquire upward economic mobility. As an adult, he’s given up his dreams until circumstances force him to confront them as a matter of literal life or death. He’s the ultimate outsider, with Kruger functioning as a sort of deranged mirror. That’s a clever bit of structural work, really, and Blomkamp is so good at that sort of thing that it disappears behind the more noticeable problems.

I think I’m convincing myself that he’s a far stronger character than I initially thought when I started to write this. Hey, that’s awesome. This is why I write reviews. Actually, it’s worth mentioning also that the allegorical makeup of Elysium is a lot stronger than I expected. Without the peculiarity (for us North Americans) of the South African setting, Blomkamp doesn’t miss a step in capturing and hyperbolizing the bevy of topical sociocultural issues that float in and out of the wealth gap narrative. He’s got rich vs. poor, healthcare access imbalances, poverty culture in general, post-penal reintegration, and even the tendency for big business and big government to get in bed and make ugly exploitative babies. Much like In Time, Elysium is the kind of movie that is utterly reflective of the Occupy era.

All the same, there’s a sense to which things come a bit too easily, a bit too conveniently in the movie. It feels small, with it’s short timeline and even shorter list of characters and you too often see the mechanics of the plot betray themselves as just that. This intermingles with the sweeping scope of its world-building and gives the impression of a really nice physical set backgrounded with a matte painting. In pure plot terms, the whole sequence between Max deciding to trade his data for a trip to Elysium and being betrayed by Kruger like five seconds before landing feels like the hand of the writer (Blomkamp wrote as well as directed this) materializing before our eyes to get his ducks in a row. More objectionable is the way Delacourt is simply dismissed (she even dismisses herself as she’s dying, it’s very weird) when Kruger completely loses his mind (after Max blows his face off) and decides he’s going to be King of Elysium.

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Being younger and sexier kind of drives him insane, I guess.

From the time we first see Kruger, the film is slowly ramping itself up toward a mano-y-mano showdown that should have been a lot better than it is. Blomkamp is a step behind himself with the action in this movie at least half the time. His gunfights are over-treated with gimmicks like extreme slow-motion (we only need one shot of those explosive rounds going off, thanks) and his fistfights are even worse, with the kind of shoddy hyperediting that is often used to disguise cheap or nonexistent fight choreography. There’s also some distracting camera shit going on there too, shaky cam helping to obscure the quick edits. If you’re going for brief, brutal, and realistic fights then the Greengrass Method is appropriate, but when you’ve got burly men made burlier with robotic armatures, people want to see that shit clearly. These actions scenes aren’t bad by any real meaure, but they are disappointing. Blomkamp infused District 9 with inventive tricks and gimmicks (FPS-style camera direction, etc) and it worked very well. Precious little of that in Elysium.

The action is made enjoyable, sometimes in spite of itself, due to the gleeful plethora of gadgets and weapons. From modded shotguns and AK-47s to UAVs and chest-mounted laptops, there’s almost no place where they miss an opportunity to throw in something neat. This also spreads out into other elements of the film, including the costume and aesthetics of the characters. People from Elysium have neat scarification tattoos embossed on their skin, either words or various shapes, and tattoos and prosthetic implants are common on Earth. The disparity is beautifully realized with everything on Elysium coming off as septic and iPod-chic whilst Earth is Miami Ink and screwing metal plates directly into bones.

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There are some pretty satisfying moments in the generally disappointing fights.

Some people will likely be tempted to dismiss Blomkamp as yet another foreign director who is compromised by working in North America. I really don’t think that’s fair. It probably would take a few movies before Neill Blomkamp is John Woo and we should be as charitable as possible given the strengths the guy so obviously has in abundance. It’s a bit of a shame that he turned some of that down for Elysium, but enough of the visionary we thought he was shows up here that we shouldn’t go thinking District 9 was a flukeElysium cannot be the instant classic that first film was, and I suspect this is partly due to the tricky interplay of success and expectation. In other words, there’s no way the environment in which this film was released could ever support it being an instant classic, even if it earned that status by merit. Not that I think it does, exactly, but it’s worth mediating one’s criticism by considering these things.

Earlier, I called Elysium a cyberpunk fairy tale and I think that’s the best, quickest way to sum it up. Cyberpunk because it is big on cybernetics, robotics, computer technology, and dystopia and fairy tale because it simplifies its narrative with rationalizations that serve an allegorical point (or moral). It’s no accident that Frey’s daughter tells a parable halfway through the movie, annoying as that moment is (in spite of Damon’s best efforts, really). It’s funny because people are going to misjudge two elements of the ending that seem lazy or unbelievable (and have, judging by other reviews) which, while adhering totally to the easy convenient logic of the plot, also ring true as both world-building and allegory. Which, you know, is what a fairy tale does.

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The protector role Max ends up in is a bit too perfunctory and incidental.

The first of these is the almost laughably simplistic programming of Torus. In a moment that will be both fun and recognizable for anybody who has learned a bit about coding, the moment when Spider grants all of Earth citizenship in Elysium will register as both simple and correct. It’s just one false/true statement in probably a disgustingly complex body of code. It’s not all that different from altering the .ini file for a video game. That one line of code could have power over your character’s mortality, or it can equalize healthcare for 10 billion people.

The second is the consequences of citizenship. Almost immediately, Torus identifies that billions of people require medical attention under the terms of Elysian medical care. This means that they have congenital defects, injuries, cancers, etc that can all be quickly treated by the medical pods. Ships are dispatched to Earth to deliver this service to people. The question some will be left with is: why the fuck didn’t Elysium just do this anyway? The question is rational, but the answer isn’t. Nor is its real world equivalent very rational. There’s a barrier to entry with the lifestyle and services of Elysium, just as there is a barrier to entry with healthcare in countries like the United States. Without insurance or financial status of a certain level, the very best treatment (or any treatment at all) is simply not possible. I think middle class (if there is such a thing) theater attendees are going to miss this clever bit of allegory completely. It simply won’t register to them in the same way that it will to all the poor kids downloading CAM rips of Elysium.

And that’s fucking perfect.

Elysium Official Trailer - Sharlto Copley

Oh Kruger; katanas and cherry blossoms.

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