FRESH POUR: Elysium (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Elysium / dir. Neill Blomkamp / TriStar Pictures

ElysiumNeill Blomkamp is no stranger to politically charged science fiction – his 2009 debut, District 9, was one of the best films of last year, combining jaw-dropping visuals and production design with a trenchant commentary on apartheid politics in South Africa. Returning back to the well, Blomkamp’s sophomore effort, Elysium, is much bigger and broader in scope than his comparatively low-key feature, but covers a lot of the same territory: an oppressive us-versus-them world of alienation and little hope, a protagonist who finds himself on the run from government forces after coming across vital information that could change the world as we know it, and Sharlto Copley yelling at people in a thick Afrikaans dialect.

Here, we see a future Earth where the rich have chosen to escape an overpopulated and polluted Earth by building a giant station in low-earth orbit called Elysium, where magical medbays can cure you of any disease or condition and make you live forever. Max (Matt Damon), a struggling ex-con who’s blessed enough among his peers to actually have a job, is irradiated due to corporate negligence; with five days left to live, he makes a deal with the criminals he used to work with to steal information in order to get to a medbay. What follows is part heist movie, part shoot-em-up, and part poignant drama.

Elysium, it must be said, is decidedly weaker than District 9 for a number of reasons. First, the protagonist’s journey is somewhat static; once the action starts, Max more or less becomes a cipher, a delivery system for the action, while all the other characters get the job done. There’s an argument, possibly, for his criminal boss Spider (Wagner Moura) being the real protagonist; his actions and his plan are the ones that lead to the world-changing events of the climax, while Max is just a facilitator who agrees to get the job done in exchange for his own rewards. Damon is fine here, but his character’s just a bit underwritten, and doesn’t go through enough transition; he’s always beaten down in some way, so his perspective and goals never really change by the end. District 9’s Wikus, on the other hand, starts out as a government stooge – not too bright, mild-mannered – but is forced to see how the other half lives due to circumstance, and must eventually fight for them.

In a way, really, Elysium is the ultimate Marxist dream – the worker (Max) rising up to gain equality through violent revolution. However, there are quite a few other messages to be found in the film, though they can come across as heavy-handed. It’s never hard to tell what the filmmakers’ opinions on these politics are; the complacent, decadent Elysians are the bad guys, and the oppressed workers of Earth are the good guys. The rich actively prevent people from getting life-saving healthcare due to prohibitive costs. The poor create elaborate plans with the help of ‘coyotes’ like Spider to “cross the border” onto Elysium to get the life they need and deserve, while the Elysians are upset that this action lowers their property value, essentially. Part of me does appreciate the heavy-handedness of the message; these truths are fairly self-evident, and if it takes a cyborg action-fest to effectively convey these things to the public, so much the better. One of the more infuriatingly precious moments in the film is when a little girl relates to Max the story of a meerkat who needs the help of his other animal friends to get the fruit the giraffes can easily reach, which finally gets him to realize the need to go along with Spider’s plan to get everyone to Elysium. While placing the message of the film in these childish metaphors, that may be indicative of the film’s need to be obvious about its own messages; many of us won’t get it otherwise. There’s a blunt frankness to Blomkamp’s work that I do admire, even if it could use a few more shades of depth.

Part of that depth could have come across in the supporting players, but most of them are poorly drawn. Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt is a fairly uncomplicated villain, the typical frigid Nurse Ratchedesque character now played with an incoherent poorly-dubbed French accent by Foster; her presence in the film isn’t even substantial enough to merit that co-star billing alongside Damon. The real villain (and far more interesting) is Copley’s Kruger, a similarly-enhanced soldier who acts as the id to Max’s ego; they both share a lot of the same traits (poor, lives on Earth, mechanically enhanced), but he is unstable and amoral as opposed to Max’s upright (though selfish) idealism. Copley infuses the character with just enough quirks to make him not just your standard stock heavy, but his role is still effectively the same. In many ways, Kruger is changed more by Elysium than Max is; a late-film recovery from a gruesome injury seems to drive him further into insanity, as if the scars and grunge he’s accumulated by the start of the film were part of him, and he has nothing to lose once he’s perfected by a med-bay. Other players include Diego Luna as Max’s best friend, Alice Braga as Max’s love interest (who’s given just as little agency and presence as the other woman in the film, Foster) and William Fichtner as a sniveling Elysian who becomes Max’s ticket for getting up there.

Despite the weakness of the script, Elysium’s world is fully-realized and the action well-done for the most part (both highlights of Blomkamp’s directorial style). The production design for the ships, the droids and Elysium itself is stunning, and the low-tech weaponry the criminals use to stage their heist (including a grungy exo-suit welded to Max in one particularly gruesome sequence) are quite interesting to see in their execution. One complaint I have is that the action, while full of the exploding body parts and detailed, immersive CG that is Blomkamp’s trademark, is often incomprehensible due to the shaky, disorienting cinematography. A couple of shots use some strange smoothing effect to even out the handheld look, resulting in a nauseating flittering effect that messes with your perspective. Still, these are few and far between, and the action sequences are punctuated by some really wonderful action work. The action beats aren’t as full of relatable character emotion and drama as the fights in District 9, but they still hold up quite well.

In conclusion, Elysium is a worthy successor to District 9, even though it still falls short in a few places. The messages seem heavy-handed and obvious compared to Blomkamp’s previous effort, but that also may be due to my comparative unfamiliarity with the apartheid politics District 9 deals with. It’s not nearly as good as I would have liked, but it still comes out as one of the more fully-realized, exciting action films of this summer.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Elysium:

1) Drink every time someone is hurt or killed (often in gloriously over-the-top fashion)
2) Drink anytime you see the exterior of Elysium
3) Drink whenever Max speaks Spanish

Finish Your Drink When:
Max (Matt Damon) says, “Now I know what the hippo wants.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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