Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium: District 10?

Elysium (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, gore and strong bloody violence
By Derrick Bang

Based on the evidence thus far, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp has only one story to tell.

Elysium feels much like his previous film, District 9, writ larger: another saga of oppressed “aliens” seeking a way to rebel against their cruel and privileged overlords. The setting and opposing teams have changed slightly, and Blomkamp clearly has a bigger budget this time at bat, but the key plot points are essentially the same; even the hardware and weaponry look familiar.

His impulsive plans having failed yet again, Max (Matt Damon) finds himself trapped on
a medical table, while the coldly arrogant Delacourt (Jodie Foster) orders some
purloined computer data stripped from his brain ... not at all bothered by the fact that
this process will kill him.
That said, political oppression has been a big-screen sci-fi staple going all the way back to 1927’s Metropolis, and it often produces great drama. So we can forgive Blomkamp the familiarity ... this time. (He would be wise, however, to move in a different direction henceforth.)

The South African-born filmmaker has a solid eye and ear for social strife — no surprise, given his homeland — which contributed, in great part, to the narrative power of District 9. Now embraced by the seductive lure of Hollywood, Blomkamp has turned his disapproving eye on the United States, and its dysfunctional immigration policy; the results aren’t likely to be embraced by red staters.

The year is 2154, and the entire Earth has become an environmental wasteland, ruined by industrial excess, land mismanagement, resource depletion and various other unchecked global horrors we currently practice, with no eye toward future consequences. Every country, in turn, has become part of a planetwide ghetto, the 99 percent left to scrabble and squabble among themselves.

But not entirely. Movement and behavior are monitored by android peacekeepers that employ computer-chip tracking to maintain a veritable police state bereft of basic human decency. And humor: Just as it isn’t smart, in our here and now, to crack wise when stopped by a traffic cop, it is sheer folly to act smug with one of these gun-toting “law officers.”

George Orwell’s influence weighs heavily, and his vision has come to pass: Big Brother really is watching, and doing so from a massive orbiting space station dubbed Elysium, where the very wealthy have fled in order to enjoy a life of pleasure and privilege among lush gardens and sparkling architecture. Automated med-bays can repair, reconstruct or eradicate anything, from broken bones to cancer.

Blomkamp knows his science-fiction, Elysium being a verdant cross between the domed forests of 1972’s Silent Running, and the technological wonders of Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels.

Travel takes place between Elysium and the surface, but only under carefully monitored conditions, and only involving the elite. One such individual is John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who supervises a massive industrial plant in the Spanish-speaking wasteland of greater Los Angeles. His employees include Max (Matt Damon), an orphan who grew up tough, flirted with car theft and other minor crimes, and now is trying to stay out of prison.

Desperate civilians, many of them ill and injured, routinely attempt to reach Elysium’s life-restoring embrace in shuttles stolen by Spider (Wagner Moura), a revolutionary-cum-human trafficker who knows Max from back in the day. It’s a perilous trip, particularly since Elysium’s Secretary of Defense — Jodie Foster, as Delacourt — deals with such incursions by blasting the shuttles out of the sky.

Any allusion to desperate Mexican migrants attempting to crash American borders is, of course, completely intentional.

Max has two staunch friends, although both relationships are compromised. Julio (Diego Luna) is a buddy from Max’s larcenous past, the life he’s trying to leave behind. Frey (Alice Braga) is the girl who left Max behind; although inseparable as children, she grew up to become a nurse — a respected occupation, even in these harsh surroundings — and Max simply wasn’t part of that career path.

One horrific industrial accident later, everything changes.

Now having nothing to lose, Max must — simply must — get to Elysium. He allows Spider’s men to bolt him into a strengthening exo-skeleton, complete with a computer port wired directly into his brain: necessary in order to clone an Earthbound Elysium official’s all-important ID and tracking data. Indignant fury prompts Max to choose Carlyle as his target, little knowing that the industrial magnate and Delacourt have their own sinister plans for Elysium’s future.

Max gets far, far more than he bargained for, and suddenly is fleeing for his life: not only from every peacekeeping android in the city, but also from Kruger (Sharlto Copley), the psychopathic mercenary Delacourt has hired clandestinely, to do her Earthbound dirty work.

Copley will be remembered as the hapless protagonist of District 9: the low-level office wonk suddenly beset by dangers he scarcely comprehended. That’s the role Damon plays here, his Max trying to survive from one moment to the next, and having absolutely no idea how to improve his chances, or deal with revelations beyond his understanding.

It’s a solid heroic archetype, and Damon plays it well, making Max an essentially noble blue-collar type turned reluctant warrior. He’s certainly no superhero, even when outfitted with the exo-skeleton; he remains vulnerable, and we feel every trauma inflicted upon his increasingly scarred body.

Foster’s Delacourt is a chill piece of work: refined and elegant in the public eye — goodness, she even speaks French — and coldly ruthless behind the scenes. She’s every bit as evil as the feral Kruger; the only difference is that she can “pass” for gracious, when necessary, whereas he’s a berserker monster.

To my knowledge, Foster hasn’t played any outright villains until now; she does so here with considerable panache, every inch a conniving, soulless Lucrezia Borgia. She’s well-matched by Copley, whose Kruger is the stuff of nightmares: a sarcastic maniac who taunts his victims to their deaths, his heavy Afrikaner accent somehow making him even scarier.

Fichtner is equally lethal, but in the calm, unruffled manner of a Gestapo general blandly sending another trainload of Jews into the ovens; human life simply has no value in Carlyle’s eyes. Luna, alternatively, deftly makes Julio the best of all possible loyal comrades.

Braga is every inch the woman worth fighting for, particularly when Frey is revealed to have a young daughter (Emma Tremblay) who is dying of leukemia.

At the other end of the acting spectrum, Moura badly overplays the excitable Spider, making him more of a cartoon than a plausible character. Granted, Copley’s Kruger is a similar exaggeration, but we accept that in a heinous villain. It’s harder to get a bead on Spider, whose emotions swing as wildly as his motives ... and, let’s just say, he’s got impressive hacking skills.

Blomkamp and his editors — Julian Clarke and Lee Smith — move the story along at an impressive clip; this is a fast-paced 109 minutes, which helps build tension and excitement. But those who remember District 9 definitely will experience déjà vu: in the broader sense, in terms of how the first act progresses to the second, and then the third; and also with respect to details such as Max’s exo-skeleton and the body-shattering weapons.

And, as with District 9, the action here is very, very gory.

Production designer Philip Ivey does superlative work in contrasting Elysium’s pampered “haves” with the have-nots left on Earth. Establishing shots in Mexico’s poorest communities echo the Johannesburg slums of District 9, whereas Vancouver’s lush suburbs double for Elysium. Special-effects coordinator Cameron Waldbauer does wonders with Elysium’s massive, wheel-shaped interior: a realized architectural miracle on par with the imaginative vistas within Inception.

I would like to know, however, how Elysium retains its essential atmosphere, since visiting ships simply “slip inside” the wheel, with no need for airlocks or similar details.

Ultimately, Blomkamp’s scripted reach badly exceeds his grasp; he builds to a fairy-tale climax that’s simply absurd, raising far too many fresh questions that can’t possibly be answered. In that respect, District 9 was tighter, better plotted and more satisfying, its resolution completely reasonable.

So while Elysium certainly doesn’t represent a sophomore slump, I hope Blomkamp has gotten this particular socio-political harangue out of his system, and can move on to something fresher next time.

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