Friday, August 9, 2013

Class System! The Movie: Fiercely grim "Elysium" heavy on brutal thrills and message



Elysium (2013)
97 min., rated R.

Four summers ago, little-known South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp brought us "District 9," an original, can't-miss science-fiction allegory on a budget of $30 million, and quickly emerged as a promising talent as visionary as a James Cameron or Ridley Scott. With fevered anticipation surrounding it, the writer-director's follow-up "Elysium" isn't on the same shelf as his first film, but it is a visually striking, often intensely exciting, and narratively engaging sci-fi action entertainment for the summer-tentpole crowd who call Western Union if they want a message sent to them. On the other hand, there's plenty of message-mongering for those who need a flashing neon sign in their sci-fi yarns, so "Elysium" ends up killing two birds with one stone.

As indicative of his debut, a sci-fi with allegorical themes of xenophobia and South Africa's apartheid reading loud and clear, Blomkamp tackles another allegory, only now about immigration, health care, and class segregation. Once again, this is a film about the Haves and Have-Nots, the 1% and the 99%. In the year 2154, disease, pollution and overpopulation have separated the world, the wealthy living on a chic, utopian space station called Elysium and everyone else living in dystopian, overcrowded squalor on Earth. Technology is so advanced in Elysium that every Malibu-style home's Med-Pod can cure disease and illness within seconds, keeping the citizens young and healthy forever, while the poor can only sit and hope to afford a ticket to the new world. 

In filthy, rundown Los Angeles, rough ex-con Max (Matt Damon, sporting a shaved head and tattoos), once an orphan who dreamt of one day making it up to Elysium, is now an assembly-line worker for Armadyne, a defense manufacturing company. When Max is exposed to deadly radiation that will kill him in five days, despite the potent meds he's given by a robot, he seeks help to Elysium from some shady contacts. Meanwhile, steely Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is hell-bent on keeping her privileged habitat clean of illegal immigrants by any means necessary, even if it involves hiring mentally deranged Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to do her heartless bidding on Earth. Once Max is super-charged with the fitting of an exo-skeletal metal suit, our hero reconnects with his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse who could use Elysium's fabulous health care for her leukemia-suffering daughter.

From "District 9" to now "Elysium," Blomkamp can't be accused of "thinly veiling" an irresponsible liberal messageeveryone should be granted citizenship to Elysium so they can all access quick healingbut he can be for making it heavy-handed and simplistic. It's needlessly drummed into our heads that the film clearly has something on its mind; we get it already. The luxurious colony of Elysium is a creative idea, too, and visually looks like a real place, although it would've helped had Blomkamp taken more time to explore the eponymous land. Upper-class citizens are seen lounging by the pool and entertaining guests in their backyards, but whenever a member of the working class breaks into an Elysium mansion to use the Med-Pod (a cross between a tanning booth and the surgical chamber from "Prometheus"), no one seems to be home. All that aside, Trent Opaloch's cinematography is stunningly lucid, capturing the grime and sheen of the world's halves, and the effects work and production design of the slum version of L.A. and Elysium are top-drawer. Blomkamp, as a director, knows how to shoot action, treating his audience to some brutal thrills and bloody body explosions this side of Paul Verhoeven. Also, any movie with an icky facial reconstruction can't be bad.

Damon is a sure thing when it comes to playing an everyman and, as the "Bourne" movies demonstrated, an intense fighting machine. It's not hard to get invested in Damon's character of Max, who proves to be selfish at first but decidedly overcomes that. He also adds some welcome levity in his sarcastic exchanges with the police 'bots. Shape-shifting actress Foster nets second billing but is asked too often to just sit back, literally, or walk around in her power suits to come away memorable for her villainy. However, as the coolly one-dimensional Delacourt, who authorizes illegal aliens to be apprehended and deported at best and killed on sight at worst, she undoubtedly provides the film with its strangest, most robotic performance (next to William Fichtner as Armadyne's CEO) and most inexplicably mannered French/South African accent. By contrast, "District 9" star Copley is viciously chilling in his over-the-top work as Kruger. 

Bravely grim and thought-provoking enough, "Elysium" is an antidote to most mediocre action fare that demands we shut our brains off. While the film's "bad" characters are all one-note and it doesn't fully explore every question out of its fascinating premise, there's enough here in this "political popcorn" to go home satisfied on a visceral and intellectual level in the month of August.

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