News, Views, and Reviews
You’ve probably heard of movies referred to as “just a summer blockbuster” or “just a popcorn flick”. This usually means that we should keep our expectations low. These types of movies are high on entertainment value and not much else. They have spectacular visual effects, aren’t very deep or thought provoking, and the acting may be good or bad. Sometimes, summer movies get two out of three right: jaw-dropping action and excellent acting, but little depth, or great visual effects and a deep plot, but terrible acting. For the rest of the year, then, expect movies to have great acting and thought provoking material, but no flashy visuals.
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp throws these expectations out the window with his second (!) full length feature film. “Elysium” has it all: amazing visual effects, terrific performances, and a very thought provoking story. After watching Elysium, maybe your expectations should change. Why can’t a movie have it all? Why should we have to sacrifice a deep plot or decent acting just because a movie has a lot of special effects? Elysium is fun to watch AND brings up some issues that may be unsettling to some. But that’s great, movies SHOULD challenge us to re-examine our selves, our lives, and our world.
Story: Remarkably, the premise for Elysium is quite simple: In the near future, the world becomes so polluted and over populated, that the very wealthy build a special space station, just for themselves, called Elysium. This is a story about the “haves” and the “have nots” taken to science fiction extremes. The “citizens” on Elysium have no problems, no crime, and no disease. The “non citizens” still on Earth have nothing but problems, barely scraping together what they can to survive. This class division is so pronounced, it’s practically racism. That’s thought provoking stuff.
Like the great sci-fi writers Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, the science fiction is secondary to the importance of the story, and is explained in quick, broad strokes. To Blomkamp’s credit, the scenario is explained with literally two sentences of written text at the beginning of the movie, and the rest of the exposition is handled by the visuals and dialogue of the characters. One of the great sequences of the movie follows a group of nameless refugees who attempt to flee to Elysium. The mostly dialogue-free sequence clearly explains what the differences are between citizens and non citizens, and how the sick could easily be healed if they could just get past Elysium’s defenses and find a citizen’s health bed. These health beds scan and cure any sickness or health problem in seconds, as long as it can also scan a special ID tag that only citizens have. The refugee smuggling operation prepares the ships and fake ID tags for the sick and desperate, but for a price. I point out this particular sequence because it’s a great example of story telling done right. There are some character defining flashbacks of Max (Matt Damon) and his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), but otherwise, the story is presented in a very clear, straight forward manner. The movie clocks in under two hours, and to me, the time flew by. Again, this is a compliment to the story telling, though I think I would have preferred a little more character development.
Characterization: The cast of characters for Elysium is pretty small, which also helps make the story and themes that much stronger. Matt Damon demonstrates his acting – and action hero – skills here, and definitely carries the movie. His character, Max, isn’t just a non citizen, he’s an orphan with a past. He gets in trouble all the time, but he’s sympathetic. He’s an “everyman” in a terrible situation that appears to be getting worse. Following a sequence of unfortunate events (which also help define the world around him), Max finds himself with only five days left to live. Knowing a health bed on Elysium can cure him, he turns to the refugee smugglers for help. At first the leader of the smugglers, “Spider” (Wagner Moura), seems greedy and mean, but he needs the money and defensive attitude to run a pretty elaborate scheme – that still has very little chance of success. Realizing Max has nothing to lose, Spider proposes a nearly impossible mission: kidnap a CEO visiting Earth on a business trip, hack the memory chip implanted in his skull, and use his passwords to sneak past Elysium’s defenses. The CEO is John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who happens to be the CEO of the construction company that Max works for. This makes him indirectly responsible for Max’s situation, and his clear contempt for non citizens means he gets no sympathy from the audience.
In opposition to Max’s mission are the head of Elysium’s defenses, Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her sleeper agent on Earth, Kruger (Sharlto Copley). I’ve read some criticisms of Jodie Foster’s performance, and I don’t think they’re justified. She’s cold, she’s mean, and she clearly characterizes the racism that is the theme of the movie. She even ruffles the Presidency and his administration that don’t always approve of her extreme measures. One of my favorite aspects of her character is her interesting accent, which also demonstrates the separation of the haves and the have nots. But Copley steals the show as Kruger, an intense individual that relishes in his “necessary evil” position under Delacourt. I think his character is very elaborate and somewhat of an enigma, so perhaps some more development would have helped. Perhaps its enough to simply consider his character and what he represents rather than forcing the movie to explain where he came from and what his motivations are. In my analysis, he’s a man between worlds. He is a citizen that chooses to live among the non citizens because his thirst for violence has no place on Elysium. IF there is any character that really could have been developed more, it was Frey, Max’s childhood friend. She’s sympathetic, and we understand her connection to Max, and she seems like the opposite of Kruger. Frey is now a nurse, and as Max points out when they are reunited, she should have leveraged her skills to get her a place on Elysium as a real doctor. But, here she is, even with a sick daughter, so I suppose her choice to stay on Earth and help other’s even less fortunate than her is significant.
Visualization: The actor’s performances carry the story so far, and the rest is handled by the visuals. I think what makes Blomkamp’s visual storytelling so remarkable is that he grounds it so well in plausible, real world technology. There isn’t anything really unbelievable in this movie. Even the exo suit that Spider’s smuggling crew literally power drills onto Max looks like something cobbled together by the desperate and down trodden of Earth, not something from a futuristic, sci-fi fantasy world. In contrast, the citizens of Elysium definitely have it all, and this HAS to come across with the visuals. But Blomkamp is the perfect director to tell this story.
When it comes to action, which really ramps up in the second half, I think I would have preferred less shaky cam. Keep the visual style grounded in reality, but give us a more sleek view of the action. The choreography was great and Max and Kruger have an amazing confrontation. Overall, though, the movie doesn’t really have that much action in it. A strange choice to me was to present that action so graphically, that Elysium is rated R. Why not tone it down, get the PG-13 rating, and broaden the audience? Though I suppose the heady issues of economic racism isn’t for younger audiences, either.
Sound: I think the best way to compliment this movie is that it would be nearly as effective as it was, even with no dialogue. There are maybe a few scenes that need it, but overall, this is visual story telling at its best. The soundtrack usually matches the scenes, and it definitely supports the oppressive, gloomy theme of the world divided. However, I would have appreciated a little more variety. Give me some heroic or hopeful themes to contrast the oppression. The action sequences also have decent sound effects, but nothing really remarkable. I appreciate that the musical score is mostly orchestra with a little electronic mix, which gives it more of a timeless atmosphere.
Conclusion: Overall, the strengths carry the film over some of its shortcomings. Maybe with a little longer running time and some more attention to the characters would have made it that much stronger. As it is, it’s a compelling, thought provoking movie with great visual effects and excellent performances from its small cast. Some may be frustrated that the film doesn’t hand feed the audience every detail, but I like pulling some of the details out on my own. The message itself may be off putting to others, but again, that’s one of the things I liked about it. For writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s second movie, he’s definitely proven he can pull off some amazing visuals with smaller budgets. He is a great visual story teller. With a little more attention to his actors and the soundtrack, and less shaky cam, Elysium would have been a total knockout. I still think it should raise our expectations for summer movies!
Elysium hit theaters August 9th, runs 109 minutes, and is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.