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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review & Analysis: Elysium as a metaphor

Summer 2013 has been brutal, there's really no way to get around it. While the blockbuster season has had a few moderate surprises (Zack Snyder crafting his best film yet in "Man of Steel", James Mangold almost pulling off the no-win situation that is "The Wolverine", "This Is The End") the misfires ("Star Trek Into Darkness", "Pacific Rim", "The Lone Ranger", "World War Z", "RIPD") have completely overtaken our collective memory of what this summer season had to offer. I've made no secret that Elysium has been my last best hope for 2013's crop of big budget filmmaking. In his debut, Neil Blomkamp directed a Best Picture nominee, and in this followup, he helms something that hits me a little closer home but with even grander imagination. Summer 2013 has finally found its best film.

"Elysium" takes place in the year 2154, where the world is divided into two classes, the wealthy who live on a space station above Earth called Elysium (and have access to limitless healthcare and a clean living environment) and everyone else lives in the disease-ridden and crime-infested slum that is now our planet. Strict anti-immigration laws keep the two populations separated, to the extent that the space station's government will shoot down any of those who try to violate its borders. Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) is an ex-con living on earth and working in a factory. When an industrial accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation, he only has five days to live or attempt to get to Elysium to be cured. In order to do so, a local gang-lord named Spider (Wagner Moura) straps him into a powerful exo-skeleton and puts him at odds with Elysium's Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her imbalanced, dangerous security officer Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Beyond its surface details, the most pressing takeaway from "Elysium" is its meditation on the Healthcare, Immigration, and Occupy debates that have taken hold in America over the past few years. To the former, the entire plot hinges on a man whose brain contains the key to opening healthcare for all citizens on earth, even at the risk of his own life. It wouldn't be a stretch to see Damon's character as some kind of Obama stand-in where his physical well-being metaphorically represents the President's political career and the risk he took in championing the Affordable Care Act. It's also not a coincidence that the only languages we see spoken on Earth are Spanish and English, whereas on Elysium, French and English are the predominant forms of speech. Following as such, it's no surprise that the majority of the citizens we're exposed to on Earth, save DeCosta, are of clear hispanic origin. 

Following that metaphor, those on Elysium will, and do, use lethal force to keep the "illegals" out. In "Elysium", Blomkamp hits on every aspect of the "Us vs. Them" divide, those with healthcare vs those who don't, nationalized citizens vs. those who so desperately want to get in, and the 1% vs. the 99%. Certainly there are those viewers who will likely think Blomkamp's messaging is too heavy-handed, but I counter that by posing this question: when is sci-fi NOT heavy-handed? The message is relevant, powerful, and well worth hearing. That of course does not mean I necessarily endorse said messaging, which is a bit more nuanced than Blomkamp is portraying (the extreme wing taking over the ruling government wasn't lost on me either), but it opens up critical discussion in much the same way that "Fruitvale Station" did earlier this year.

The scope of "Elysium" may be the element that impressed upon me most. In the best cases of science-fiction, the viewer gets a sense of world-building that allows you to suspend disbelief and fully invest in the foreign environment the script has created. Much like Blade Runner, still one of the high water marks of this type of effort, "Elysium" crafts a world that is visually rich, striking an interesting balance between Blomkamp's "District 9", "Mad Max", "Metropolis", and the cleaner visuals and score of the "Mass Effect" and "Fallout" series of video games. The film is particularly indebted to Fritz Lang's masterpiece in its visual conception of the "splendor of the world above", and that its a piece of machinery that disrupts the order of those inhabitants. The CGI throughout is gorgeously put to use, particularly in the appearance and threat of the robot security guards. In contrast to the artificial sheen of robots that have appeared in a few movies this year, the weight and density of the variety on display here is impressive.

Matt Damon, while not being the most varied actor, has proven that he is one of the few performances of approaching middle age that can convincingly carry an action film. While his character does have a tinge of blandness to him, he's easily one to root for because of the villains in which he is set against. The action is also shot in such a way that there are a number of eye-catching sequences and fist-pumping moments. Damon acquits himself well in this environment and with his larger build put on for this film, his moments of physical prowess are well earned. Copley as Kruger is also a rather nasty piece of work, and its his character that firmly sets us on DeCosta's side and builds interest in a showdown between the two.

That's not to say all the villains work out as well, Foster plays Delacourt with relish in the few scenes she has to play with, but she comes out a bit undercooked and because of that there's a sense of "over the top" performing that somewhat undermines the character. Delacourt seems almost too obviously evil without much of a reasoning from where that character trait is rooted. On the other hand, William Fitchner as John Carlyle, the factory owner of where Max works, is quite good in a more underplayed fashion, and is the perfect representative of the bourgeoisie personality that inhabits Elysium. On the protagonist side, most are fleshed out strongly enough, but Alice Braga's Fray is not much more than a plot device for Max's catharsis and emotional investment. Her involvement in the plot ends up working well by the final act particularly, but her early scenes stick out a little as the one questionable part of the plot.
"Elysium" is exactly the kind of summer movie entertainment I'd been looking for throughout all of July. It's a film where I was sufficiently entertained with moments of exhilaration, and I never had to turn my brain off once. Finally this summer we have an epic that has sharp writing, strong character development, coherent plotting, and a massive sense of scope without sacrificing performance. "Elysium" deserves to be seen and deserves to be talked about. It is my favorite film of the season.

I give it an A-

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