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ELYSIUM Is Much More Than a Brainless Action Movie

In Elysium, the world has gone to shit. It is heavily polluted and poverty has risen to extremely high levels - the ghettos stretch as far as you can see. This is where the poor working class lives.

Elysium

In Elysium, the world has gone to shit. It is heavily polluted and poverty has risen to extremely high levels – the ghettos stretch as far as you can see. This is where the poor working class lives. The rich  have chosen to move to a space station habitat called Elysium, to separate themselves from the poor. On Elysium, however, the situation is not as utopian as it seems – the secretary of defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is planning a coup and meanwhile mercilessly shoots down every ship with people trying to get to Elysium in hope of a better future.

Max (Matt Damon) is a poor working class inhabitant of future, tortured and bilingual L.A., which has decayed into a desert shanty city. He used to be a thief, but he  righted his ways after having spent some time in prison, with hopes of making his way to Elysium. He now works for a large company, Armadyne, that builds robot police officers. One day at work, he gets into a terrible accident and is coldly told by a doctor robot he has only five more days to live. This is when he decides he is going to Elysium, not because he wants to right the wrongs in the world, but because in Elysium, they have med-pods which can save his life.

To arrange this trip, he makes a deal with the man who arranges the illegal trips to Elysium, Spider (Wagner Moura), and he is equipped with an exoskeleton suit to increase his chance of success. The mission? To take an inhabitant of Elysium, steal information from his mind and take it back to Spider. Max chooses his former boss, Carlyle (William Fichtner), boss of Armadyne. What he doesn’t know, however, is that Carlyle’s mind contains most vital information: everything about the coup the secretary is planning and the key to “rebooting” Elysium to ensure the coup. This makes Max the target of secretary Delacourt and her totally insane South African mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Elysium

source: TriStar Pictures

What follows is an intense goose chase at break-neck speed, with glorious exoskeleton suit battles, gorgeous views from Earth, space and Elysium and a major change in the character of Max. The action doesn’t let up for a single moment, making the 109 minutes pass by very fast.

Blomkamp is One to Watch and Foster Failed at French 101

South African director Neill Blomkamp proves again he is a great director, as well as script writer. The story is deep, much deeper than most critics so far have accredited (which I will get into later on). In Elysium, Blomkamp knows to create a situation on Earth that feels realistic, and while the Elysium space habitat is not something we would achieve in the near future, it is a brilliant allegory for the global segregation between the wealthy and poor.  Neill Blomkamp most certainly is one to watch, if you weren’t convinced yet after District 9, Elysium must convince everyone; if it’s not for the message of the movie, it’s for the incredible display of action, and his capability to make a superbly enjoyable movie.

Matt Damon, according to Blomkamp, was casted for the person he is known to be – a kind of innocent, perpetual good guy. And while Max’s motivations to go to Elysium are far from hero-like or selfless, something about him constantly hints at a good heart, which makes the evolution of the character all the more believable.

Whereas Max does have a character arc, Jodie Foster’s character of the secretary of defense Madame Delacourt has none at all. She is a Cruella de Ville type character, with no motivations for her behavior other than lust after wealth, financial and political. While Jodie did her best to give this character some flair, she failed so poorly at times the performance became cringe-inducing. Her evilness was quite over the top and her “French” accent was poorly delivered; it was a strange concoction of accents that sounded nothing like French and left me with a sense that she had no idea what she was doing. If they wanted a French character, they would have done better to have cast a Française for this role, I could see  Juliette Binoche or even Marion Cotillard rock the hell out of this role.

Sharlto Copley, who gave a stellar performance as main character Wikus van der Merwe in District 9, does not disappoint in Elysium as crazy villain Kruger. His character arc is as flat as Delacourt’s, but in this case I’m totally willing to forgive it purely for the intense insanity of the character. In fact, I would say he’s one of my favorite villains this year! What a total badass. I can’t wait to see Copley in other Hollywood productions, luckily we can see him in the new sci-fi Europa Report and he is going to be in the Oldboy remake. He definitely deserves more attention.

Elysium

source: TriStar Pictures

The Shaky Cam of Doom

What I disliked about this movie as much as what I disliked in District 9 was one aspect of the cinematography. While the cinematography in general is quite excellent and the points of view are well done and give a great feel of the setting, what I personally cannot stand is the extremely shaky, documentary style of filming. Firstly, it is very much overdone by now, and secondly, it just makes me motion sick. I don’t know if I’m the only one who experiences it this way, I asked my brother with whom I watched the movie and he said it didn’t bother him as much. I just feel that if the shots were steadier, it would have improved the watching experience for me. I don’t care at all for the documentary style, I’d rather film makers would leave it behind entirely. While I’m excited for Chappie, Blomkamp’s next project, it’s again in collaboration with Trent Opaloch, with whom he worked on both District 9 and Elysium, and I’m slightly fearful of what that might mean. I sincerely hope they will consider steady shooting.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the set design and construction of the world of Elysium in general. The amount of detail was amazing. Blomkamp creates an incredibly intricate world, and he does not focus so much on it as to break up the flow of the story, but every detail has been constructed with amazing attention and really makes this world a rich one.

Discussion

As I mentioned, in my opinion most critics give this movie too little credit. Many discard it as a “brainless action film”, disappointed at the contrast between the depth of District 9 and the lack of depth in this one. I do not agree at all. While some aspects of Blomkamp’s social and political criticism in Elysium were as blatant as in District 9, some were much more subtle.

Elysium

source: TriStar Pictures

First, foremost and most obviously, there is the criticism on the gap between rich and poor. This, everyone picks up on, the message being something along the lines of “our current situation is bad and will only get worse”. So far so good.

Less subtle are the following ideas.

  1. There is no apparent government present on Earth. It seems the inhabitants of Earth, or at least L.A. are entirely governed by Elysium-based companies such as Armadyne. This company also produces the law enforcement robots. This is pointed criticism on ongoing privatization reality, where governments are losing or willingly giving away power to corporations that take over tasks that originally were governmental responsibility. Additionally, although more obvious, the way the corporation takes care of its employees is derogatory to say the least. The poor are a commodity, disposable and a good-for-nothing work force. This is quite the haunting image Blomkamp sketches.
  2. About those robot cops: they are not simply robots but allegories for modern law enforcement. What I took from the robot cops and their senseless beating of Max, the parole cop and his uncaring treatment of him, was that Blomkamp is criticizing the way people and (former) criminals in particular are treated by law enforcement in real life. Law enforcement in some countries has militarized (war on drugs/terrorism, etc). It heavily criticizes the systematic reasoning and blindly following of orders of law enforcement, without considering the moral implications of their actions. Moreover, the parole officer, used as a metaphore for real life parole (officers), has total disregard for any of Max’s opinions or wishes.
  3. Committing crime is not something you choose. Blomkamp tells us that committing crime is something you’re forced into if you want to make it in a world where there are no opportunities, or if opportunities are actively taken away from you.
  4. The West is xenophobic, afraid of the other. This is the message that was so plain in District 9, but is again very present in Elysium. The world is turning into a place where exclusion of the other, crimmigration (criminalization of immigration) and deportation are part of day-to-day business. Elysium‘s Earth, the people’s desperate attempts to get to Elysium and their destruction on their way there, and the total disdain (or fear) of the privileged towards the Earthlings are all allegories for modern day xenophobia and crimmigration.

So no, Elysium is not a brainless action movie. You just have to think a bit longer and deeper to get what Blomkamp is trying to say. While I appreciated District 9, I may like Elysium even better exactly for that reason. It’s not as obviously moralistic as District 9, which means that the relay of Blomkamp’s message will happen more unconsciously, meaning it will likely stick better.

I can heartily recommend watching Elysium – even if you’re not feeling like considering all its layers and messages, you can just enjoy its action and the story. It’s great fun. You’ll love it.

Thoughts?

 

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