Aug 09 2013

ReThink Reviews: Elysium

Rethink Reviews | Published 9 Aug 2013, 8:09 am | Comments Off on ReThink Reviews: Elysium -

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Rethink ReviewsTaking a deeper look at current and past films and how they relate to the world today.

Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.

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It feels like a long time since 2009, when Neill Blomkamp’s first feature ‘District 9’ was released, a sci-fi allegory about apartheid, privatization, and the weapons industry that blew minds with its social commentary, the fabulous performance of Sharlto Copley, and its mix of gritty realism and stunning CG effects done with a budget of just $30 million. Summer blockbusters have only gotten bigger since then, with ballooning nine-figure budgets and an ever-greater reliance on CG, but with a corresponding drop in substance that has wary summer audiences staying home. But Blomkamp is back with ‘Elysium, another groundbreaking sci-fi masterpiece full of up-to-the-minute social commentary that proves not only that ‘District 9’ was no fluke, but that Blomkamp, after just his second film, deserves to be considered among the best directors working today.

‘Elysium’ takes place in 2154, where life on earth has become so polluted, diseased, and poverty-stricken that Earth’s ultra-rich have created the ultimate gated community — an orbiting space station called Elysium — where they can “preserve their way of life” and continue to live in idyllic, luxurious splendor, ostensibly forever thanks to advanced medical technology that can reverse aging and miraculously cure any ailment.

The promise of that technology drives Max, an earthbound factory worker and former criminal (played by Matt Damon), to find a way to Elysium after a workplace accident gives him only days to live. Without the money to pay for an illegal crossing, Max makes a deal with a human trafficker/revolutionary named Spider (played by Brazil’s biggest actor Wagner Moura), to help Spider’s crew extract valuable data from the brain of John Carlyle, the wealthy industrialist who created Elysium (played by William Fichtner). But when that data turns out to be more valuable than anyone imagined, and with a psychotic South African mercenary named Krueger (played by Sharlto Copley) after him, Max is forced into a struggle with consequences much larger than his own survival.

Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the official in charge of Elysium’s safety who, like most modern-day movie villains, seems patterned after Dick Cheney. Alice Braga plays Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey, whose daughter is dying of leukemia, with Diego Luna rounding out the international cast as Max’s former partner in crime.

Blomkamp’s genius for creating realistic, lived-in worlds is on display early and often, with his uncanny ability to combine motion capture and CG effects with real actors, locations, and fantastically designed physical objects, like the exoskeleton that’s bolted to Max’s body to enhance his strength even as he’s dying. Not only are the weapons, spaceships, and the mix of old and new technologies amazingly designed, but they feel used, aged, and patched, unless they’re on Elysium, where everything is gleaming, stylish, and new. Damon also helps the film’s realism, with his talent for natural performances that hardly make it seem like he’s acting at all.

But one of the biggest contributors to ‘Elysium’’s realism is Blomkamp’s decision to set the film’s earth scenes in Los Angeles but shoot them in the sprawling slums of current-day Mexico City. This helps ground the film in reality, because if you think the gap between the wealthy and the poor in this movie is dystopian sci-fi hyperbole, you live in a dream world. Compare the lives, health, and environment of the poor today with that of the 1%, and they might as well be on different planets, whether it’s individuals or entire nations, since much of the developed world might as well be Elysium if you live in a poor, unstable country.

Filming in Mexico also helps ‘Elysium’ make its points about immigration, with Spider essentially acting as a coyote, launching “undocumented” spaceships full of “illegals” (as the film calls them) who risk being arrested or killed to receive needed medical care. Again, if you think a wealthy society would never be so cruel and greedy as to allow or even cause children to die of preventable illness, you better wake up.

Some could justifiably knock ‘Elysium’ for having a plot that’s very similar to that of ‘District 9’, but maybe that’s because the story of an average person who foregoes his own self interest for the good of the many is a classic one that’s at least as old as Jesus. But more importantly, ‘Elysium’ is masterful on every level, where I spent the entire movie leaning forward in my seat, repeatedly thinking, “I can’t believe how good this movie is.” Neill Blomkamp is working on a completely different level, doing for action and sci-fi what directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher are doing for drama. If you don’t like action, sci-fi, or political movies, ‘Elysium’ is still a movie you should see. And for those who rightfully complain about brainless blockbusters, ‘Elysium’ is what you’ve been waiting for — a movie with excitement and action, but more importantly, with heart, soul, brains, and guts.

‘Elysium’ is rated R and opens today.

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