Saturday, August 10, 2013

ELYSIUM (2013)

"What's in it for the hippo?"

Elysium is a film that seeks to answer that question... sort of.

In 2009, some no-name nobody launched a crazy, effects-laden, heartfelt, action-packed, futuristic dystopia movie upon theaters called District 9 - a film that brilliantly tackled social issues of our modern society through the art and language of science fiction cinema. That film's writer/director, Neill Blomkamp, successfully infiltrated Hollywood and was, imaginably, given the key to the city (or at least to the studios). He returns now, 4 years later, not with some cheesy Tom Cruise or Will Smith vehicle (we've already had those films shoved down our throats this summer) that aims to rip off some Isaac Asimov short story and turn it into a 5- or 6-part franchise, as he easily could have done... (many inspiring young directors have taken that route after their initial successes, selling out their creativity for big cash and a soulless product...) but, instead, he gives us one of the best sci-fi "thinkers" this side of 2001.  (The year, not the movie.)

Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, gives us a glimpse at a possible future: Earth, in the year 2154, is polluted, over-crowded and just a horrible place to live.  That's why the planet's richest and most elite humans have escaped to their own private nearby halo satellite system dubbed "Elysium" (named after the ancient Greek concept of the land of the afterlife; a paradise where "admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes" - in other words, "the special people." The metaphor for many American viewers of the film will ring not so subtly as "Earth = All 3rd World Countries, Elysium = America").

In a flashback, we first meet young Max (played by a perfect 8-year old clone of Matt Damon named Maxwell Perry Cotton) who dreams of a better life on the distant satellite world.  But when we flash to his present, (in 2154... I think,) we see he's a former legendary car thief, now reformed (slightly), living in a ghetto, working a shitty factory job, and still saving up for the day he can afford to become a citizen of Elysium.  Then he has an accident at his shitty factory job and is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that will essentially kill him in 5 days.  He panics and decides he has to get off-world, into Elysium, and into one of their awesome, magical "MedBay" machines (previously seen in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus"), which basically just instantly heals everything from a paper cut to bone marrow cancer (and all sorts of gory dismemberments in between), and seem to exist in virtually every home on Elysium (but are apparently non-existent on Earth for some reason).  Max throws away everything he has - which isn't much - to find a way to smuggle himself onto the satellite and crash a MedBay and get all better, but the clock is ticking.  And this is when they action starts and pretty much never stops.  Oh, also, Max gets a mecha make-over that kinda makes him super strong.  That helps.

Elysium is not the greatest summer sci-fi action flick since Terminator 2 or anything like that; its special visual effects are virtually invisible with such realistic CGI.  It may not even be as good as "District 9" in many ways, though it is much bigger in scope.  Some of the characters seem one-dimensional and lack a bit of relatable motivation. (One wonders why Max's character doesn't just chose to lay down and die after his accident at the factory, deciding, "Screw it... better to die than to live in this hell-hole," but he answers that question with five powerful little words of over-simplified dialog: "I don't want to die.")

What the film lacks in character development and depth of environment over the course of its 100-minute run-time, however, it makes up for with relevant metaphor.  If we are to completely ignore the obvious themes in this film about our current immigration problems, we'll see that the story more specifically mirrors our modern-day health care crisis, where we have the technology to improve health and mortality rates, not only in our own country for both the rich and the poor, but for the world over.  And unfortunately, just like today, there are systems in place to ensure only the most wealthy and well-connected people get access to such services.  This is precisely what makes a great sci-fi/fantasy story so powerful; it's an out-of-this-world adventure movie that disguises the morality tale underneath.  Sure, in our world, it's a much more complicated issue than "We should open our boarders to everyone in the world give them all free health care."  But, essentially, since humanity has the ability to heal the sick all over the world, do we not have a moral responsibility to find a way to make it happen?

In a metaphorical bedtime story told by a little girl to our hero, Max, there is a meerkat in Africa who wants to get across the river to where he can live safely and happily, but he only way he can get across is on the back of a big and dangerous hippopotamus.  "Stop," he tells the girl. "Just stop.  It doesn't end well for the meerkat."  The girl, who represents the "perfect good" in all humanity says, "Yes it does.  The hippo carries him across the river on his back."

"What's in it for the hippo?" he asks rhetorically.  But the little girl has an answer for his rhetoric.

"He wants a friend."

Elysium was a good movie that looked amazing and moved along at a decent (sometimes a little slow) clip.  There are a few moments of extreme violence and gore, but they are brief and, once, serve well to illustrate the amazing power of the magical MedBay devices.  Matt Damon is as great as ever, but, let's face it: as great as he is in films like this and the Bourne trilogy, we love him best when he's being broken down by a wise, old, bearded therapist and leaving Southie forever to chase after the girl of his dreams.  That's the best Matty Damon there is.

It's always good to see Jodie Foster, too, who plays the ruthless politician, Secretary Delacourt.  But, to be honest, her character was only one head of the Cerberus antagonist of the film, representing the system itself as the villain.  Plus, her fake accent (I'm guessing it was supposed to be some mishmash of various accents evolved together after hundreds of years) was just atrocious.  It almost looked like her voice was being dubbed in at times.  (What happened there!?) 

And then, previously seen as our hero in the aforementioned "District 9", Sharlto Copley is a delight to watch here as Kruger, the buffed-up, murderous leader of a small band of mercenaries serving as Max's most immediate threat throughout the film. I had no idea it was the same actor until I got home.  Quite a transformation!

But, in the end, the Rotten Tomato scores are about right on this one - this movie gets a solid B or so.  Worth seeing, maybe even in the theater.  And keep an eye out for young Mr. Blomkamp.  At a mere 33 years of age, we have lots of good and great films yet to come from him.

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